“I’m more of a Telex man,” is Mac Macintyre’s reaction to the news that his employer, a major Houston oil company, is sending him over to a small town in the north of Scotland to finesse the details of a major land purchase. Rarely has there been a more accurate one-line summary of a character. At the beginning of the film, Mac (Peter Riegert) is almost completely without human contact. He drives the Houston expressways encased in his silver Porsche with the radio blaring. His conversations with others always take place either on the telephone or through glass (or, in one scene, both). He doesn’t seem particularly happy, but he seems comfortable, he is a man in his element.
The night before his departure, Mac telephones a few people to tell them he is leaving, but no one seems very interested. His selection for the trip seems mainly due to his Scottish ancestry, although he confesses to a coworker that he is in fact of Hungarian extraction (his family adopted the name Macintyre upon arrival in the U.S., thinking it to be an American name). With the exception of the warm, almost filial rapport Mac has with his boss, Happer (a serenely beaming Burt Lancaster), he is shown to be sealed-off and remote.
As he arrives at the tiny hotel in the remote Scottish town of Ferness, Mac calls up to the window to be let in. “It’s never locked”, replies the owner. This moment is an interesting one. It introduces the town, as well as the theme of ‘opening up,’ but it is also typical of the film as a whole, in that it is so underplayed. The director, Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Being Human), does not cut away to a big reaction shot of a wide-eyed Mac, shocked at the casual attitude these country folk have toward home security; he simply shows him entering the hotel. The same tone holds true throughout most of the film. Forsyth is not interested in making National Lampoon’s European Vacation. He is not trying to wring broad comedy out of the obvious differences between small town Scotland and big city America, and Riegert’s Mac is far from the obnoxious American stereotype.
Instead, Local Hero is a much more gentle affair. Less a sweet, fizzy Bud Light than a smooth, languid Glenmorangie, it is more concerned with mood and minutiae than with glib fish-out-of-water misunderstandings. In fact, one of the things that is so touching about the film is that Mac understands the town and people so well. He takes to the place remarkably easily, almost as if the story his parents told him about his being Hungarian was not true after all. Mac spends a lot of time strolling along the beach, at first in his suit, and then in progressively more and more casual garb. The expression on his face in these scenes is calm and contemplative, that of a man who has come home after a long trip abroad.
The townspeople, too, are far from the cast of dotty eccentrics who so often populate such towns in cinema and television (for example, Northern Exposure, which this movie greatly resembles in most other aspects, even down to Riegert’s uncanny resemblance to Rob Morrow, that show’s Dr. Joel Fleischman). They are neither hostile toward Mac nor especially awed by him. They are curious about the money he may represent, and busy themselves with working out how to wring as much out of him as possible, but they do so in a way that is more level-headed and pragmatic than it is hysterically money-grubbing.
Their negotiations are spearheaded by Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), the aforementioned hotel owner, as well as the town’s lawyer and bartender. Despite their outwardly antagonistic roles in deciding the town’s fate, Urquhart and Mac form an uneasy friendship. In a drunken exchange late in the film, Mac asks Urquhart if they could exchange lives. This expresses what has been clear to the viewers for some time: that Mac envies Urquhart’s life and sees him almost as an alternate version of himself, separated only by trivialities such as time and space.
As Urquhart, Lawson gives a standout performance. He is sober and businesslike, but always with a hint of a smile playing in the corners of his mouth. Lawson and Jennifer Black (as his wife, Stella) have some beautifully unspoken chemistry in their scenes together. These moving and almost wordless slices of domestic intimacy perform the rarely-attempted trick of showing marriage as sexy.
The chief problem with the film is that its central message could be read as "Scotland is quieter and more beautiful than Houston," hardly a revelation by any means. But just as it is always wonderful to hear an opinion you share expressed much more eloquently than you yourself ever could, watching Local Hero is a wholly satisfying experience. Its few moments of sentimentality are well earned, and its only missteps are a couple of minor characters (an abusive therapist and an Andy Kaufman look-alike Russian sailor). Forsyth’s simple directing is augmented by Chris Menges’ lyrical cinematography and Mark Knopfler’s slow-burning fuse of a guitar score, which uses the entire film as a lead-in to a chorus that only erupts as the credits roll.
Cinema is so often the medium of pain, anger and brutality. It has always been easier to make films about misery than about happiness, for happiness is so un-cinematic, so devoid of conflict. But Local Hero is a rare and welcome exception. It explores the rootlessness and alienation of the modern urbanite, and outlines possible alternatives, in a far subtler and more eloquent way than, say, Fight Club. Unlike the hero of that movie, Mac’s awakening here is less about being a man, and more about being human.
– Ben Stephens