If you’ve been waiting for actor Sam Elliott to deliver a perfectly calibrated swan song performance, his work in The Hero is it. Women of a certain age (my mother being one of them), who remember Elliott from his heyday in the late 80s and early 90s in made-for-TV movies like The Quick and the Dead, and theatrical releases like Roadhouse and Tombstone can’t resist him. Hell, it might be all women for all I know. It’s that voice. And that mustache. Now that I think about it, maybe I can’t resist him, either.
Director Brett Haley wrote the part – and basically the whole movie – for Elliott. The actor doesn’t let his director friend down. His portrayal of aging Western star Lee Hayden, an actor whose glory days are behind him, is tranquil, but also beautifully mournful. Elliott is, without a doubt, extraordinary in The Hero.
Lee lives a comfortable life, financially speaking, although his means of supporting himself aren’t the most challenging or fulfilling. He uses his gravelly, western drawl in voiceover work to hawk things like barbeque sauce. He is still somewhat friendly with his ex-wife, but his daughter doesn’t want much to do with him. At the beginning of The Hero, Lee discovers he has pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease. That, and a chance meeting with a younger woman, lead Lee to ruminate on the meaning of his career, his life, and how to come to terms with the fact that he’s closer to the end of both than the beginning.
The movie itself is a little uneven. Haley is working in a subgenre – the-older-person-reflecting-on-the-end-of-their-life – with some interesting entries. The Hero is great, but it’s outshined by other movies like it. Bill Murray’s melancholic Broken Flowers and the dark, edgy, late-career performance Mickey Rourke delivers in The Wrestler easily come to mind. The Hero loses itself a bit in a few underdeveloped plot points and characters. Because the dramatic arcs for these kinds of movies are generally similar, it feels like Haley takes for granted that the audience already knows where he’s going. This is particularly evident in Lee’s relationship with his daughter, Lucy (played by Krysten Ritter). We get nothing deeper than the usual “you weren’t there for me when I was little” schtick. Which is resolved with exactly the kind of scene you might expect toward the end of the film, when the two have an emotional conversation about his failings as a father. It’s a good scene, elevated by the superb acting of Elliott and Ritter, but the other scenes dealing with their pained relationship feel a bit clichéd.
Better handled is the most well defined relationship in the film. Lee meets – through Jeremy, his pot dealer – Charlotte, a woman who is three decades his junior. The two strike up a friendship, and Lee invites her to be his date for a ceremony where he is receiving a lifetime achievement award. He is being honored by the Western Appreciation Guild, a group of western movie and memorabilia enthusiasts. Their date at the event leads Lee to do some soul searching about why such a younger woman would be interested in him. In contrast to the relationship between Lee and his daughter, this one feels more nuanced. Things get even more complicated when Lee discovers Charlotte is a stand-up comedian, and he sees her using their budding romance for material.
One of the more frustrating aspects of The Hero actually leads to one of its most transcendent moments. The movie leans a little too heavily on the “old-people-do-the-darnest-things” trope. Haley tries to mine a lot of comedy out of the fact that Lee smokes pot, for one. Then, just before his lifetime achievement award banquet, Charlotte offers him an unknown drug. He wants to prove he can still party, so he takes it – no questions asked. This leads to a goofy, but somewhat stilted scene during his speech that turns him into a viral internet star. He gets offered a movie audition as a result, something that hasn’t happened for him in years.
After the audition pages are faxed to him (old people still fax, har har), Lee runs the lines with Jeremy. This is when Elliott truly shines. In a movie filled with his downbeat, glorious performance, he delivers something even more heartbreaking and stunning. What makes it surprising is that the words Lee is speaking don’t have anything to do with his character. He’s simply practicing for his audition. It’s a true showcase moment for Elliott. I won’t spoil what happens when Lee gets to the actual audition, but it’s every bit as emotionally charged as the scene I just described.
In Lee’s dream sequences, interspersed throughout the movie, he relives scenes from the one movie he’s most proud of, The Hero. The cinematographer, Rob Givens, shoots these sequences with a rich, nostalgic quality. Elliott is dressed in the familiar western garb from his own glory days and Haley makes an interesting decision here. We would expect an aging actor reliving his most iconic role through dreams to imagine himself as a younger man. Because of countless directors that have delighted in de-aging actors with the help of computer effects – see Carrie Fisher in Rogue One, or Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy – it comes as a pleasant surprise to see the modern-day Elliott, grey haired and wrinkled, in his own dream. This particular stylistic choice speaks to the character’s contemplation about the end of his career, not to mention his life, and these elegiac passages are another highlight of the movie.
It’s hard to fault The Hero too much for the problems I mention above. Elliott’s star turn is a wonder, and his performance shouldn’t be missed. The movie’s overall tone and ruminations on aging are skillfully and carefully rendered. Fans of Elliott will relish the movie. People who aren’t yet familiar with the actor’s work will quickly become fans after seeing this thoughtful indie gem.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Sam Elliott. Full stop. Don't get me wrong, the movie is good. It's touching, and has a rich tone to it, but without the amazing performance of Elliott, it wouldn't be nearly as memorable as it is.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Besides Elliott, the rest of the cast does a fine job as well. Laura Prepon uses her trademark sarcastic edge to great effect as Lee's love interest, Charlotte. Elliott's real-life wife, actress Katherine Ross, makes a rare screen appearance as his ex-wife.
- I love Nick Offerman. He's chronically underused in just about every movie in which he's cast, and sadly it's the same in The Hero. He plays Lee's pot dealer, and aside from one or two funny moments, he's given almost nothing to do.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
Edgar Wright hasn't made a movie yet that I haven't really enjoyed (granted there is one movie of his I haven't seen, his first, called A Fistful of Fingers. Still, five for five ain't too shabby). I'll be reviewing his new film, Baby Driver, next. Come back to find out if he keeps the streak alive.