A simple movie boils down its components for maximum effect.
"Simple” is not a synonym for stupid, at least when we're talking movies. When everything starts looking like a $200 million dollar, three-hour superhero epic or a multi-layered drama hoping to become a visualized Great American Novel or an intricate indie mind-teaser whose twitsy, turny plots are all about the end reveal, a simple movie boils down its components for maximum effect. Not easy to sell, but, often, just as momentous.
Alongside Cameron Diaz's hijinks-filled romantic comedy and a parkour police shoot-em-up, two movies favoring the simpler side of cinema drift into theaters, demanding attention for what they don't do. Locke , a one-man show starring The Dark Knight Rises' Tom Hardy, and Blue Ruin, a thriller depicting the less-than-perfect execution of murderous revenge, couldn't be further apart story-wise. They're linked by vision, movies with the patience to unearth a nugget of an idea, approach it from every angle, every setting, and capturing what happens. Think of them like those 25-cent plastic dinosaurs you used to buy at grocery store. Add a bit of water and a tiny plastic T-Rex, slowly but surely, became a full-fledged monster.
In Locke, Hardy stars as the title character, a successful construction foreman, a loving husband, a father, and possibly the most ordinary man on the planet. When we pick up with him, it's the eve before the biggest concrete pour in U.K. History. Locke isn't sticking around to find out how it goes. Loading paperwork into his car, he sets off on an urgent hour and a half long drive to London. His peers don't have a clue where he's going, his wife wonders why he's missing dinner, and a hospital keeps ringing his cell. Locke's life is imploding, and over a series of phone calls with his closest friends and family, he calmly attempts damage control.
Blending the dreamy, photographic possibilities of a late night drive down the highway and the heightened reality of theater, where one man can command an entire show, writer-director Steven Knight throws a single curveball into a characters life — in this case, Locke's drunken one-night stand — and lets his cameras role. Hardy's the lynchpin, the British actor feigning a Welsh accent that soothes the soul, even when he's admitting to his wife that his bastard son is hours away from being born. Locke is a planner and a manager. Any situation that comes his way, he can fix with rational thinking and goals for the future. He talks to his family the same way he talks to his construction team as he guides them through the next morning's pour. One mistake, even infidelity, can be mended. He thinks.
And that's really it. Knight swings to every imaginable angle within the claustrophobic space without interfering with Hardy's hushed tour-de-force. The unseen ensemble of callers add the color missing from the on-screen action; the mother of Locke's new son is an off-kilter obsessive fueled by unrequited love; his wife is sent spiraling into an emotional maelstrom; his sons, dying to watch the football game with their dad, are everything perfect that could disappear in a second; his absent-minded coworker scrambling to coordinate the pour is in over his head and drunk on wine. And then there's Hardy, proving there's an understated side of an explosive personality capable of conjuring Bane and Bronson.
There's less of a hook in the equally triumphant Blue Ruin. Riffing on revenge thriller blueprints, depressed drifter Dwight (Macon Blair) is reignited by news that his parents' murderer, Wade Cleland, has been released from prison. He immediately jumps into action, procuring a knife, tracking down Cleland, and offing him in maladroit fashion. Most films would stretch the hunt for Cleland into a grindhouse road movie of its own. Not Blue Ruin, which follows Dwight as he prepares for incoming retaliation from Wade's three brothers.
Writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier spent most of his career shooting movies for other directors and it shows. With a super-wide frame, the Southern suburban landscapes of Blue Ruin mirror a Spaghetti Western. The methodical direction allows Saulnier to mine comedy and pathos from the fact that Dwight is very much not a Clint Eastwood “Man with No Name.” He's a regular joe, and when a regular joe is attacked by shotgun-wielding hunters, he mimics Home Alone. When he's shot in the leg by a crossbow, he limps to the nearest drug store for a needle, thread, and disinfectant.
Saulnier wants to know how “revenge” works in the real world. In Blue Ruin, it follows the laws of physics: each action has an equal and positive reaction. This turns the Dwight vs. Cleland clan feud into a modern Hatfields and McCoy throwdown. When one bullet is fired, another will follow until everyone is dead. Except for actor Devin Ratray, who played Buzz in Home Alone and appears in Blue Ruin as Dwight's gun-toting buddy. He's too cool to be killed.
Locke and Blue Ruin are linear, subdued, small-scale master works that redefine the “simple” label. They don't read well on paper. It's easy to imagine the demanding person in our lives sifting through synopses on Rotten Tomatoes: “Really? A guy drives a car for 90 minutes? Another goes on the run after a murdering a murder? SEEN IT.” Without too many plates to spin, both films become fully-formed, each camera composition, acting choice, and spurt action perfectly constructed and effortlessly pulled off. While the studios serve up plenty of mixed drink movies with fancy names, Locke and Blue Ruin await your taste buds, top shelf shots ready to be kicked back.
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