Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things) has outdone himself with his latest writing/directorial effort. Although set entirely in a car with one actor a la Duel, Locke is proof that simplicity can be powerful. One riveting car ride spearheaded by one riveting lead actor is all it takes to have you completely and utterly hooked from start to finish.

We meet hard-working Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy, most recognised as the muscly villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises) at the end of another arduous shift on the construction site. He’s a revered engineer in the field and is supposed to be overseeing a huge concrete pour in the morning, but an unavoidable event has prompted him to prioritise his personal problems and abandon the project. He hops into his metallic BMW and hits the motorway — destination unknown.

This is the cut and thrust of Locke. We follow him from his site in Birmingham down to London, on and off the phone with pissed-off business partners and his family waiting for him at home. Locke’s “callers” are tense performances, and although we never see the actors, their conversations are raw and convincing. Olivia Colman (Broadchurch) as lonely Bethan and Andrew Scott (Sherlock) as Irish crew leader Donal are particularly punchy; conveying a range of moving and complex emotions with just their voices.

Locke evokes many theatre particulars in its staging. It was filmed in under two weeks due to Hardy’s schedule, and as a by-product of that, he had little time to learn the lines. Adding to the organic, spontaneity is Knight not telling Hardy which actor was going to ring in and when, so like his character, he had to prepare his conversations on the spot.

The film is visually stunning, with foreboding nighttime cityscapes and lens flares encircling the car interior. It’s almost a bit film noir with its dark, brooding colour palette and glows, with Hardy lit in neon greens and oranges reflected by passing cars and traffic lights.

Hardy’s titular Locke has a Richard Burton-esque Welsh lilt, which is effective as the sole storyteller. It’s both calm and commanding, and easily facilitates his steely, mature performance. He’s a magnetic screen presence, and behind the wheel, seesaws effortlessly between the crisis in his career, as well as the crisis unfolding in his nuclear family (predominately vocalised by his wife Katrina, played by Luther’s Ruth Wilson).

Locke is a sympathetic lead despite his fleeting faults, as it is clear he has a very sound moral compass. As Locke’s physicality is gradually exhausted, his philosophical monologues become more pronounced, as he battles against the legacy of his ill-equipped father to guide him in the right moral direction.

Never leaving the car for 80-odd minutes sounds boring in theory, but the anxiety levels are high throughout. At times, the claustrophobia is almost unbearable. Will he crash on the motorway as a result of his mounting distractions and distress? Will the project go ahead? Will his family forgive him? These are constant, nagging questions throughout; and although many remain unanswered, the ending is satisfying. After all, uncertainty is the bane (couldn’t resist) of life.

Knight has succeeded in compressing an ambitiously scripted drama into an insular, agonising journey. Tom Hardy is a tour-de-force as an existentially angsty lead, expressing both control and vulnerability as a man dealing with multiple crisis’ over the course of one car trip. You feel on the verge of disaster at every moment, with a build up of chaos misleadingly alluding to an undesirable outcome. Locke works because it’s a gutsy concept, and the one-on-one engagement with Hardy’s antihero is a thrilling, cinematic pay-off.