We recently saw the movie Local Hero, made in 1983. We can now no longer remember how it got in our Netflix queue, but what we knew about it when we started was that it was a fish-out-of-water story about a Houston oil company man who is sent to negotiate the purchase of a Scottish village in order to build a refinery. So we expected some kind of heartwarming tale pitting a big, heartless, polluting business against a rural community clinging tenaciously to its traditional way of life.
What we got was far more complicated, and more interesting. The plot summary suggested that the main plot point turned around a character called Ben who was unwilling to sell his stretch of beach, thus potentially holding up the sale. So we expected the story to be about McIntyre (the Houston oilman) being sent over to Scotland to convince Ben of the error of his ways, but in time coming to realize the error of his own.
Instead here's what we got: McIntyre is sent over to negotiate the deal before Ben even enters the picture, so Ben's resistance is not initially the pivot of the plot. Rather, he's sent over because the villagers are not "Telex people," as McIntyre describes himself, and the negotiations have to be conducted in person. It's once he gets to the village that the movie gets really smart. For one thing, it's smart about what it's really like to live in a remote, bucolic village whose principal industries are all of the 19th century variety (in this case, seaweed processing and extraction). It reminded me very much of my own backwoods hometown. You see how everyone works two or three jobs, trying to scrape together a living, and how the way things work locally might be seen by people from the outside as skirting the edge of legality (as when a Russian fisherman drops in for a community ceilidh). The eccentric landlord of the pub where McIntyre stays is also the town CPA and becomes the representative and negotiator on behalf of the villagers, who are, as it turns out, keen to sell their property in exchange for a chance to get out of their near-poverty. And he negotiates hard with the oil company on behalf of his community (This is where I turned to Rex and said "Are you having fieldwork flashbacks yet?").
There is a certain amount of slapstick in the process, as McIntyre gets to know the community and they get to know him, and any number of funny, eccentric characters (the town punk rocker; the minister, MacPherson, who's actually an African exchange student who stayed; the pub regulars); there's also the beautiful marine biologist, who works in the bay and who thinks the property purchase is going to build a marine laboratory rather than a refinery. And there's McIntyre's boss back in Houston, the oil mogul whose personal obsession with astronomy is as important to him as the land deal (he keeps calling McIntyre on the town's only phone box to ask about the night sky in Scotland). But these characters, far from being caricatures, are eccentric in a closely observed, deeply affectionate way; they are eccentric the way real people are eccentric. The slow pace with which the film unfolds helps you see this.
I don't want to spoil the movie entirely, so let me just say that it doesn't end as you would expect. Ben and his resistance to the sale enter the story near the end, and prompt McIntyre's boss to come over in person. What's remarkable is that the sale does take place, but not in the way or for the purposes that you think it will, given the beginning of the film, and that the plot ends up turning, not on Ben's resistance, but on his relationship with McIntyre's boss. It ends happily (the refinery is not going to be built) but a little wistfully, as McIntyre goes home to his '80s-tech Houston condo (hi-fi, microwave, Cuisinart).
It's a small, finely drawn movie, and very much worth seeing, though certainly a period piece, in its '80s ambivalence toward capitalism and its complete lack of three-dimensional female characters. Burt Lancaster plays the oil company boss, and I'm sure that it was the unexpected depth of the script that led him to take on such a small-scale project. It's really not trivial to experience a movie that really transcends its potted plot summary, and this is one. Watch it.