Criterion Review: Get Ready to Cheer for LOCAL HERO

We all know the terrible version of this movie.

Local Hero, now available from the Criterion Collection, stars Peter Riegert (one of the non-Belushis in Animal House) as “Mac” MacIntyre, a mid-level oil exec tasked with traveling to a remote Scottish village and buying up the entire village and surrounding area so his company can convert the location into a refinery. But of course the hotshot city slicker is going to find himself first baffled and then entranced by the eccentric locals and their scenic locale, and of course the best laid plans are going to go awry when they come up against someone with no interest in money. Again, you’ve seen this story before, probably many times.

But Local Hero avoids artifice and easy sentiment at every turn. Both its humor and its melancholy are understated, Bill Forsyth’s screenplay and direction allow the characters to reveal themselves and their hearts only gradually.

Because it is confident in its truth, Local Hero can speak them softly.

Forsyth spells his intentions out quickly enough, with early scenes painting some of the most stone-faced satire of ’80s corporate culture this side of Robocop. When CEO Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) falls asleep during a meeting, his subordinates keep going, whispering their way through it. Mac drives to work through a dingy, brown Houston, at peace with his daily disconnect from other people and the world at large. He’s comfortable in his glass office, talking with neighboring co-workers over the phone and handling business via fax machines.

Because of Mac’s name, his superiors assume he is of Scottish descent (Mac admits elsewhere that his family is Hungarian and changed their name to MacIntyre to sound ‘more American’) and choose him to go to the tiny coastal village of Ferness and buy the place up. Reluctantly, Mac sets out, paired with an over-eager company representative, Danny Oldsen (a distressingly young Peter Capaldi).

When they arrive in town, the duo find themselves the center of a good bit of attention. Now, again, in the bad version of this story, Ferness would be stuffed stupid with quirk and whimsy, its every inhabitant a cartoon caricature of what filmmakers assume folks in rural areas are like. And the ones who weren’t exhausting in their preciousness would be spouting aphorisms and words of wisdom, because wealthy people assume that non-wealthy people are all either morons or Yoda-esque mystics.

But while Ferness has its own personality as any small town might, it isn’t some impossible magical place, and the locals are savvy about the oil man who’s come to town. Tired of eking out an existence fishing, they’re more than happy to sell. The town’s interests are represented by hotel owner and accountant Gordon Urquhart, (Wedge Antilles himself, Denis Lawson) who urges everyone to play it cool so they can drive up a decent price.

With nothing to do except wait, and seemingly no obstacles besides time, Mac and Oldsen proceed to immerse themselves in village life. Oldsen becomes entranced by a beautiful scientist (Jenny Seagrove) studying the aquatic life on the coast. It took me a legit half hour to recognize that the doofy, excitable nerd in this movie was the future Malcolm “lubricated horse-cock” Tucker and the Twelfth Doctor, all young and awkwardly charming. Peter Capaldi: Romantic Lead is for sure not the ride I thought I was getting a ticket to when I popped this Blu-ray in, but boy oh boy is he a charming presence.

Mac’s own journey is more understated. Again, the cheap, easy version of this movie would be to play Mac as a blatant asshole who has to be humiliated and broken until he becomes a better man, a cock-sure embodiment of ’80s narcissism that has to be beaten into submission by being forcibly entrenched in pastoral life. And probably there would be some easy psychological lock that needed to be picked, like a daddy that didn’t love him or a sweetheart that broke his romantic spirit, something along those lines.

But what makes Riegert’s performance so affecting is how his transformation sneaks up on him as much as it does us. Mac is shocked to learn just how lonely he truly is, by the need for fellowship and community that he didn’t realize he needed. There’s no histrionic monologue, no impassioned speech or easy Oscar reel. Riegert’s specialty to this day (most recently he had a very funny recurring role on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) is his killer deadpan, droll delivery, and certainly Forsyth’s script gives him ample room to flex that skill. But there are moments here where the scales fall from his eyes, where the armor cracks, and Riegert is so vulnerable in those scenes that it almost hurts to watch him. Two scenes especially spring to mind, one being a long, drunken conversation with Lawson’s Gordon, in which Mac says the kind of things that can’t really be said unless you and/or the person you’re saying them to are both catastrophically drunk.

The other is a moment of almost holy ecstasy in which Mac is overwhelmed by the Northern Lights overhead and rushes to call the astronomy-obsessed Happer to try and described what he’s seeing and how it’s making him feel, failing at both.

As Happer, Lancaster is Local Hero’s ace in the hole. While “eccentric, benevolent oil baron” isn’t exactly an archetype that’s especially smiled upon these days, Lancaster is such a delight in the role you can’t help but love the guy. Well into his elder statesman days, Lancaster was only six years away from his crowning glory, his heartbreaking turn as Moonlight Graham in Field of Dreams, and only seven years away from the stroke that would send him into retirement for the remaining years before his death. But in Local Hero, he’s as frisky and energetic as he’s ever been onscreen, playing Happer as a man who simply is not rooted in the same concerns as anyone else around him.

Lancaster also gets this very funny film’s funniest subplot, involving a therapist who antagonizes and insults his patients as a form of treatment. Even after Happer has fired the man, he keeps turning up in increasingly bizarre and outsized ways. Made me cackle every time, not least of all because of Lancaster’s skill with portraying seething, slow-burn rage.

Eventually, Happer makes his way to Ferness as well, just in time for Local Hero to finally develop a plot, 90 minutes in. But as with everything else, where other films would make this complication the driving force behind the entire movie, Local Hero goes at it with understated grace and gentleness of spirit. Forsyth listed Powell and Pressburger’s delightful I Know Where I’m Going! as a major influence on the film, which would have been the film I compared this to even without having read that. Like the best work of the duo known as the Archers, Local Hero isn’t interested in forcing its characters to conform to the narrative beats and structures laid down by Screenwriting 101. It’s happy instead to spend time with these characters until we feel we know them inside and out, so when tumult and disruption do arrive, even relatively minor stakes and quiet epiphanies are enough to rattle you.

A movie about people falling in love with a place had better sell the audience on that place, which Local Hero accomplishes in spades. Cinematographer Chris Menges cut his teeth in documentaries before jumping to features with Ken Loach’s Kes. He would win an Oscar shortly after this film with his work on The Killing Fields. Menges shoot the hell out of the Scottish location, drinking deep of the rolling green hills and endless grey skies stretching forever. Given the various characters’ fixation on the stars, the night sky brings out the best in Menges’ camera, his starry fields inspiring in the viewer the same awe they do in Mac and Happer.

For much of the film, the only splash of color is the red phonebox that serves as Mac’s only connection to the company and the world outside Ferness. The red of the box against the overcast sky and the dark ocean beyond renders it an exclamation point, an aberration that takes on an almost mystic quality as Mac struggles to communicate what’s happening to him to anyone who will listen.

Local Hero is also noteworthy for being the first film score written by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame. As unassuming as the rest of the film, Knopfler’s music sneaks up on you, weaving into the texture of the piece until only at the end, as the credits roll and “Going Home” begins to play, can you begin to take stock of what has happened and what it has done to you.

This being the Criterion Collection, if you are a fan of Local Hero or just seeing it for the first time, there’s pretty much no better way to watch the movie. The digital restoration is absolutely gorgeous, and the disc comes stocked with goodies including a commentary with Forsyth and noted film critic Mark Kermode, both contemporary and recent documentaries and interviews detailing the making of the film, and an essay by film scholar Jonathan Murray.

I went into Local Hero an almost complete blank slate, knowing nothing about the film save the title and that it was cited frequently as an under-loved favorite by many film critics and makers that I admire. Having now seen the film, I understand the appeal. Local Hero threads an absurd number of narrow needles to transform an exhausted story form into something vital and human and alive.

We all know the terrible version of this film, so be sure to appreciate and enjoy the time they got it right.

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