Night. A man leaves a construction site, gets in his car and drives. He is Ivan Locke and over the next 85 minutes we will watch his life fall apart. To say much more would be to spoil an early contender for film of the year.

Tom Hardy, as Ivan, spends the entire film in the driving seat of his car and is the only character seen. The crew shot the film sixteen times across five nights, allowing Hardy the continuity and focus to follow his character’s shifting world.

The result is deliberately play-like: specifically a radio play. That’s partly because the supporting cast are never seen, only heard in the phone calls Ivan makes throughout the film (the actors were sat in a Docklands hotel room, ringing in as necessary). But it’s also because these are big name actors (Hardy, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Olivia Coleman, Ben Daniels, Danny Webb) working on a relatively small project for a short time, knocking out an involved performance from an intelligent script and then moving on. “Locke” could easily have been a Radio 4 Friday Drama.

What separates it are the visuals. At times, they are almost divorced from the dialogue, but that allows the two elements to comment on each other. If we’re going to spend the entire film in this one car, we will explore the world it contains. Bits of set-dressing take on greater significance; the names Ivan has chosen in his phonebook (“Bastard”, for example) tell us about his relationships with the people he is talking to; the type of car, the beads on the seats and the Help for Heroes wristband build up an idea of Ivan as a respectable, self-made family man. They show us he is not the sort of person who would be expected to get himself into this situation.

Ivan himself is a fascinating character. He is a critically fair man with a huge sense of responsibility: everything will be right if he can take control. The film is built around him owning every mistake he could easily hide from. “Why didn’t you just say you were sick?” asks his boss at one point. “Because I’m not sick,” Ivan replies.

“Locke” is stunningly good. Between its direction, its production, its screenplay and its cast, it shows drama and suspense are not built on incident but character. Hardy continues to demonstrate that, behind his imposing physique and sad, sad eyes, he can create a particularly masculine form of emotion. You must see “Locke”.

“Locke” is in cinemas from 18 April

Follow Michael Mills on Twitter.