One of the many highlights of Andy Kaufman’s stand-up career was the time he got onstage and sang, “One hundred bottles of beer on the wall, one hundred bottles of beer. Take one down, pass it around, 99 bottles of beer on the wall…”
The audience snickered over the thought of an entertainer coming out and singing a dopey ditty that exists only to entertain restless children on long car trips. But then he got to 98. And 97. And 96.
Suddenly, spectators grew a little nervous. Kaufman wasn’t really going to sing 100 verses of this doggerel, was he? Then he got to the 70s. And the 60s. And his audience grew restless themselves, wondering when he was going to abandon this ridiculous idea.
By the time he got to the 30s, everyone in the theater was electrified. Yes! Do it! Take it all the way to zero! Which, of course, he did, to rousing applause.
I never got to see Kaufman live, but I got an idea of the sense of excitement that his brand of audacity prompted while watching “Locke.” The film begins with Tom Hardy, as the title character, climbing into his SUV at a construction site, turning on his Bluetooth, getting on the highway and beginning to make a series of phone calls.
We learn that Locke isn’t heading home, despite the fact that his sons are excited about a football match on TV and his wife has planned a special dinner. We learn that he isn’t going to be at work tomorrow, even though he’s a foreman who’s supposed to be supervising a massive concrete pour in the morning, and there are a million moving parts (inspections, traffic closures) that he’s supposed to be overseeing.
After about 20 engrossing minutes of watching Hardy drive and talking to disembodied voices, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be exciting if the movie didn’t inevitably lead to whatever happens next, and the whole thing was just Hardy in the car and on the phone?” Lo and behold, that’s exactly what writer-director Steven Knight has in mind as well.
Knight, best known for writing “Eastern Promises” and “Dirty Pretty Things,” has enough faith in his dialogue (and in Hardy’s ability to perform it) to cloister an entire feature film inside one vehicle, and it’s a gamble that pays off brilliantly. It’s a grand theatrical experiment along the lines of “The Human Voice” or “Sorry, Wrong Number” (two plays built entirely around phone conversations), and it’s utterly electrifying from start to finish.
Hardy gets sure-footed support from a fine voice cast (including Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson and Tom Holland) on the other end of those calls, but it’s his show all the way. Despite the physical limitations, he creates a complete character, trying to do the right thing despite the complications his actions create in his personal and professional lives, and attempting desperately to paper over the fears and concerns of family members and co-workers alike as he tries to be a better man than his own absent father ever was.
Hardy has become a favorite of movie fans with roles that allowed him to be exceedingly physical, whether it’s the bravura brutality of “Bronson,” the no-nonsense toughness of “Lawless,” the cage-match ferocity of “Warrior,” the silky menace of his “Inception” character or even the over-the-top villainy of Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Here, limited almost entirely to his voice, he’s no less captivating, drawing us in little by little to unravel the story and to get to the core of Locke himself. Hardy might be past needing a star-making performance, but this is the kind of work that raises him to highest echelon of actors working in film today. He and Knight remind us that artists can astonish with the simplest of methods.