In the British indie drama Locke, Tom Hardy spends nearly the entire film seated in a car and talking to people on the phone—and it's brilliant. It's also the strongest evidence of his singular excellence to date.

Chances are, the casual moviegoer's first exposure to Tom Hardy was in Christopher Nolan's cerebral 2010 blockbuster Inception, in which he played the charming scene-stealer Eames, an identity thief in the literal sense. Or, perhaps, it was in 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, with Hardy turning a second-rate Batman villain, Bane, into one of the most fascinating cinematic creations ever. Always level-headed and always rocking that monstrous mask, Hardy's Bane is an imposing gargantuan in sight but a mesmerizing elocutionist in sound, talking like a regal Englishman who's just eaten half a jar of peanut butter.

Also directed by Chris Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises is technically Christian Bale's Caped Crusader's movie, but it's almost entirely Tom Hardy's show—the "almost," of course, saving room for Anne Hathaway's criminally sexy turn as Selina "Catwoman" Kyle.

Either one of those Hardy performances makes for a strong first impression, but entering the 36-year-old London native's career with those flashy summer bank-breakers is going about it all wrong. The proper introduction to Hardy's filmography is the one that I had, back in 2008: a little indie biopic called Bronson, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, three years before he'd collaborate with Ryan Gosling on Drive. In the dark, aggressive, and combustible Bronson, Hardy plays the real-life English career prisoner Michael "Charles Bronson" Gordon Peterson, a psychotic anarchist who wasted away 30 years of his hard life in solitary confinement and got off on beating the shit out of guards and other inmates. Refn's film is pure Stanley Kubrick revisionism, popping with wide-angle shots, hypnotic moments of slow-motion violence, and oddly complementary uses of classical and soulful jazz music to off-set the brutality. It's one of the more underrated movies of the new millennium, for sure.

Hardy's work as Bronson, to that point, is literally the most underrated acting performance of the new millennium. When he's not filming movies, Hardy is barely five feet, ten inches tall and reasonably lean, but in Bronson? He's a hulking behemoth, a bruiser whose physicality only seems puny when compared to his bring-hell-down personality, which Hardy breathes roaring life into throughout the film. Walking around in circles inside his prison cell, totally naked and with his shaved head, twirling mustache, and piercing eyes, Hardy's Bronson is a feral animal.

Prior to watching Hardy's latest film, Locke, the only movie performance I'd seen after Bronson that shocked and awed quite as much was Hardy's embodiment of Tommy Riordan in the also slept-on 2011 sports drama Warrior. Again, Hardy knocked me sideways, as well as anyone else who's seen director Gavin O'Connor's powerful film. In Warrior, his brutish character isn't like Charles Bronson—he doesn't bring the pain just because he enjoys it. Mixed martial arts badass Tommy Riordan flexes his muscles because it's the only thing he feels he's good at, and it's the lone way he'll ever be able to reconnect with his estranged, formerly alcoholic father (a heartbreaking Nick Nolte). In Bronson, Hardy will break every bone in your body; in Warrior, he'll break your heart.

In all of those aforementioned films post-Bronson, Hardy continually reaffirmed that he's the most exciting actor of his younger generation, his only contemporary competition being Michael Fassbender. But Fassbender hasn't shown nearly as much range as Hardy to this point. Additional paragraphs could be written here about Hardy's equally terrific exhibitions in the Cold War espionage art-house film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and the otherwise forgettable Prohibition-era crime pic Lawless (2012). He's also the best thing about the 2012 action rom-com flop This Means War, a project Hardy must have taken just so he could, for once, play a friendly, softer character, which he does well enough to afford him a pass for being in an unquestionably terrible movie.

While watching Locke recently, though, it dawned on me that I was witnessing his official ascension to greatness. All of his previous roles and films were building up to this moment. Some might say that Hardy's more important time under the microscope will be next year, when the new Mad Max film Fury Road opens and shows whether he's a major box office draw or not—in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, he was, of course, just one crucial piece in large, starry ensembles.

In other words, the polar opposite of what he is in Locke. Directed by British screenwriter turned shotcaller Steven Knight, Locke is the epitome of cinematic minimalism. Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a construction manager who gets into the driver's seat of his BMW the night before he's supposed to oversee the biggest concrete pour in Europe's history. But that's the last thing on Locke's mind. As his wife and teenage son call him on the BMW's dashboard phone system, Locke heads down the M5 motorway en route to London, where an older woman he had a one-night stand with is about to give birth to their out-of-wedlock baby. And for nearly 85 minutes straight, Knight's cameras remain inside the car and focus on Locke as he battles through a whirlwind of emotions and comes to terms with the awful way he's about to rip his family apart, not to mention put his successful career in jeopardy.

Indeed, Locke is simply Tom Hardy in a car for a little less than 90 minutes, and it's amazingly captivating and intense. Behind the camera, Knight does a fine job adding unforeseen dimensions and raw energy to his single, claustrophobic location. But let's not get it twisted—Tom Hardy is the film's undeniable MVP.

Nearly matching the beguiling brilliance of his strange Bane voice, Hardy gives Ivan Locke a somewhat exaggerated but consistently pitch-perfect Welsh accent. Why? Hell if I know, but it's an inspired choice, one that exemplifies Hardy's singular risk-taking decisions as an actor. He sports a scruffy beard that undercuts his natural-born handsomeness, lending the character a jovial-neighbor-next-door appeal that's absent in every role he's played before Ivan Locke. He owns all of Knight the screenwriter's dialogue, transmitting an array of feeling, from overwhelming sadness to on-edge anger and manufactured calmness, through little more than facial expressions.

There's a point in Locke where the film nearly jumps the shark, or, for a more appropriate metaphor, crashes the figurative car. Knight mixes pieces of Locke's back-story into his phone conversations, hinting at a painful relationship with his now-deceased father. In the beginning of his trip, Locke swigs medicine to fight a head cold, and after one swallow too many, he begins to imagine that his dad is riding in the BMW's backseat. Fortunately, there isn't an actor playing Locke's own Dexter-like "dark passenger"—Hardy just talks to himself in the rear-view mirror.

It's a potentially silly move on Knight's part, and had he cast a lesser actor to pull off such inherently goofy scenes, Knight could have derailed the entire production. Hardy, however, taps back into the skill he employed to turn Charles Bronson's straight-to-the-camera monologues into towering moments of sheer force, though that specific talent is downplayed in Locke. In Knight's vehicle, he makes his character's fiery but overcooked talk of joining his pops in heaven sound beautifully wrenching.

Since it's difficult to market and wholeheartedly indie, Locke will be hard to locate in a theater this weekend. More so than its basic superiority over every other new movie in release this week, the thing about Locke that makes its limited release so tragic is the part it plays in defining Hollywood's current pecking order. It's big-screen evidence that Tom Hardy is the best actor alive, an opinion that should grow in popularity as studio execs see Locke, his in-demand status increases, and he keeps getting better and better while he takes over multiplexes in the years to come.

The lucky few who give Locke a chance this weekend without knowing much about the guy, though? Their impending revelation concerning his artistic supremacy will make the rest of us in-the-know Hardy fans jealous. You never forget your first time.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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