The average cinemagoer will know Tom Hardy as the handsome Brit from Inception, or as Batman's ultra-ripped, marble-mouthed nemesis in The Dark Knight Rises. 

That Tom Hardy does not appear in Locke. 

Arthouse buffs will best remember Hardy from films like Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson—in which he scorched viewers' psyches as the gargantuan titular sociopath—or as the slack-jawed redneck bootlegger in the under-seen Prohibition drama Lawless. 

That Tom Hardy is also absent in Locke. 

For Locke's entire 85-minute runtime, the camera is trained exclusively on Hardy as he makes a late-night drive from Birmingham to London for the birth of his illegitimate child—the product of a one-night stand, the only time in his carefully calibrated life that he betrayed both his moral code and his wife. 

So he drives, fielding call after life-changing call on his Blue-tooth. He tries to calm his wife. He comforts the stranger carrying the living symbol of his infidelity. A respected construction foreman, he's just left work before the biggest day of his career, so he walks a nerve-rattled underling through preparations for the project, continuing to do right in a job he will probably lose. 

That's it. A man in his car. No madman on the other end of the line. No shadowy figures. No chases. Just one car, one phone, one man.

Yet this is a perfect vehicle for Hardy's talents, and despite the absence of anybody but the jagged-toothed Brit, Locke manages a strange level of tension. Writer-director Steven Knight wisely shot the film over the course of only a few late nights, with Hardy fielding calls in real time from actors on real phones. As such, his exhaustion and concentration are very, very real. He manages layers of angst, anger, pride, sadness and vulnerability, his increasingly weary face lit only by passing headlights. Whether calmly instructing his employees or—in the most stinging moments—speaking out loud to the memory of his father, Hardy is staggering. 

Make no mistake. Many viewers will abhor Locke for precisely what makes it wonderful: It's a movie about a guy in the car. This isn't the story of anything but a proud man fending off shame and personal defeat. There are no special effects, save the brilliant special effect that is Hardy, who disappears into the role, driving headlong into the unknown.

Critic's Grade: B+

SEE IT: Locke is rated R. It opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.