Mad Max: Fury Road might be the action film of the year, but this minimalist road movie shows how much tension Tom Hardy can create without big stunts, big explosions, or even leaving his car.

Few movies have done so much with so little as Locke. With barely one set—the inside of a car—and one on-screen actor (Tom Hardy) director Steven Knight sculpts a minimalist road movie from a transformative nighttime journey on an English motorway. It’s supremely tense and propulsive, but punctuated by moments of deep reflective stillness—the revelation of a lone state of mind that echoes out through the wider human experience and triggers bright flashes of recognition.

Ivan Locke (Hardy) is a construction manager who discovers, out of the blue, that a woman he unknowingly impregnated during a drunken one-night-stand is about to give birth. Rather than return home, as planned, to watch a soccer match with his wife and kids, he chooses to face up to the consequences of his brief, uncharacteristic infidelity by driving through the night to help the woman cope with her labor.

Complicating the mission is Locke’s obsessive, almost unhinged determination to make sure that the upcoming day’s work—a crucial concrete pour for the foundations of a massive building—goes ahead without a hitch, even though he has effectively deserted his post.

The fallout for both his marriage and his job is likely to be catastrophic, but Locke is determined to break with his forebears’ long and inglorious history of running from hard truths. “The Lockes were a long line of shit,” he says to himself, summoning the ghost of his deceased, despised father in the rear-view mirror. “But I straightened the name out.”

Everything must be accomplished from behind the wheel of his SUV, through a series of phone calls that stretch his sanity, and our nerves, to breaking point. All the characters except for Locke are heard but never seen, voices on speakerphone whose lack of a physical presence becomes one of the movie’s greatest virtues. Our imagination is free to run with the drama, like we’re watching a great radio play within a movie—we feel the desperation of Locke’s panicked assistant Donal (Andrew Scott, best known as arch-villain Morairty in Sherlock), the shell-shock of his cheated wife (Ruth Wilson, recently seen in Luther and The Affair), and the pre-natal fear of Bethan, the woman in labor (Olivia Colman, who won a BAFTA for her role in Broadchurch). Knight brilliantly exploits the power of the mind’s eye.

At the same time, Locke has that sense of hermetic immersion more often generated by space or submarine movies. We’re trapped with the single protagonist, who may just as well be floating in a tin can, far above the moon, surrounded by darkness, control lights, and reflections. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, whose previous feature was the mega-budget Thor, transforms the ordinary into something infinite, but still intimate—a visual approach that chimes perfectly with the thematic notion that small personal details can inflate to encompass the universal human condition.

The screenplay, by the director, is another cornerstone of Locke’s excellence. We’re fascinated by the prosaic technical details of an industrial concrete pour because we’re sold on Locke’s burning dedication to his profession—it’s all in the poetry of his language: Concrete is “as delicate as blood” he tells Donal, by way of motivation. Without the perfect grade of concrete, the entire building is compromised—there’s no room for error, and when Locke emphasizes this to Donal, the connection to his personal life is clear. “One little fucking mistake and the world comes down around you.”

Carrying the entire edifice on his shoulders is Hardy—without doubt one of the heavyweight talents of his generation. From Bronson through Inception, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and beyond, he brings unpredictability and intensity by default. Here, with a soft Welsh accent and eyes that run the range from hard focus to fragile empathy, he’s the vortex around which every element of Locke revolves. Hardy, ironically enough, sticks his pedal to the metal in Mad Max: Fury Road, but not all car movies are fast and furious—and few are as profoundly engaging as Locke.