Mac is a mid-level executive in a huge oil company called Knox Oil and Gas in Texas. He drives a Porsche and makes a good salary, but he has little luck with women and seems to be lonely. Mac is sent to Scotland to negotiate the purchase of an entire town because Knox’s owner mistakenly thinks Mac is Scottish. The owner of the company, Mr. Happer, is bored with the oil business. Even though the board of his company wants to acquire the town in Scotland so they can build a refinery, Happer is more concerned with the sky over the town, believing a comet will be seen from there. He hopes to discover the comet and have it named after him. Happer has a ridiculous office with a glass staircase leading up and a private planetarium in the ceiling, but at home he is alone and cooks for himself in a small kitchen, and we can see his heart isn’t in the oil business. He hires a therapist whose unusual technique is to try to humiliate powerful men, therapeutically, with dubious results. In the town in Scotland there is one man, Urquhart, who owns the hotel and also works as an accountant and taxi driver. Most of the rest of the people in town are very poor fishermen. Everyone is excited about the prospect of becoming rich from Knox Oil’s purchase of their town, except Ben, the local eccentric who owns most of the beach.
I could talk about Local Hero all day, and I may do other articles about this fine film in the future, but for tonight I just want to think about the question posed to me by the ghosts of all the literature professors I had who linger in my mind: who is the hero of the title? Is it Mac, who arrives to make a deal that will make everyone rich? Is it Gordon Urqhuart, who looks to raise the price of the town by dragging his feet on the deal? Maybe it’s Oldsen, Mac’s Scottish colleague who befriends a fellow oil company employee who might be a mermaid, and advocates for a research center at the site. Maybe it’s Victor, the Russian sailor who visits the town from time to time and has become a part of the community. I thought for sure when I started thinking about this that the hero was Mr. Happer, who arrives in his helicopter just in time to stop the desperate locals from trying to strong arm Ben over the beach property. But when I got to the end, I decided that the hero was Ben himself.
One thing for sure is that the heart of this emotional and cerebral movie is the party the town throws in the middle of the film. It’s called a ceilidh, and I can’t believe I spelled that right the first time so high five to me. It’s pronounced “kaylee.” Every time I watch Local Hero I feel like I’m at the party. The ceilidh portion of the film is the point at which it seems Mac and Urquhart have come to an agreement. It’s also the point that we are privy to the conversation of two old men, one of whom expresses the sentiment that he thought all the money would make him happy but he doesn’t feel any different. And this is before they even have the cash in hand! Mac starts to feel guilty for the imminent destruction of the town, and it’s ironic now, thinking of the 1983 perception of Russians as Communists, that Victor provides him with the capitalist perspective that it’s their town and they can sell it if they want to. When Mac sees the aurora borealis and calls Mr. Happer in his extreme drunken state from the party to describe it, that’s the turning point when Mr. Happer decides to come over to Scotland and see for himself, even though he hasn’t yet decided what to do with the place.
I’m not singing tonight, because there’s no karaoke versions of songs from Local Hero except a traditional Scottish song that’s party in Gaelic. But the best scene in the film is a song, and it’s sung by Victor. Just listen to this and try not to feel sentimental about the little town.
Trivia: tonight was the first time in all the years Local Hero has been my favorite movie that I noticed the radio station Mac is listening to in the opening scene has the call letters KNOX. This implies that Mr. Happer owns the station, I’m sure, and is meant to underline the complete way that Mac’s job defines his life. Mac is changed at the end of the film, as we know because we see him back in Texas but calling the phone booth in Scotland.