Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Presenting The Hero at the Dallas International Film Festival a few months ago, director Brett Haley made no secret of his admiration for Sam Elliott and how it served as the major impetus for getting his movie made. Admittedly, out of all potential filmmaking muses, one can hardly do better than Mr. Elliott. With that distinctive drawl and droopy mustache, he commands attention in every scene with a cowboy’s nonchalance. More often a supporting character actor than leading man, The Hero provides for him a role that is a tailor-made melding of the two. This is clearly Elliott’s show and he doesn’t disappoint.
The film opens on Lee Hayden (Elliott) alone in a sound booth recording a barbecue sauce commercial voice-over. As an unseen producer asks for just one more take…and another…and another, nothing changes in Lee’s inflection, though the aggravation is clear in his face. An actor in his early seventies, Lee and his career are defined by his role as “the Hero” in a Western now several decades old. The glory days—and choice parts—are long behind Lee, who now spends much of his time smoking weed and watching old movies with former-child-actor-turned-dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman). The only phone call from his agent is to tell him that he’s won a lifetime achievement award from a rinky-dink film appreciation club. More frightening than the prospects of his twilight career is a doctor’s recent diagnosis: pancreatic cancer, which boasts single digit survival rates when Lee turns to the internet for information on the disease.
This shock of mortality compels Lee to reach out to his ex-wife, Valarie (Katharine Ross, also the off-screen wife of Mr. Elliott) and his estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter). He can’t quite bring himself to confess the truth though, instead telling them both that he has a new movie in the works. Lee bases this fib on the vivid dreams he’s begun having, a jumble of scenes from his star turn in that much-celebrated Western, now relocated beside a gray-tinged beach. Further complicating matters is his flirtation with Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a stand-up comedienne with a self-professed “thing” for older men. As Lee drags his feet in telling his family the news of his diagnosis and puts off appointments with his oncologist, he sinks into deeper contemplation over his life, his career, and whether he’s capable of departing either of them with peace of mind.
The Hero is neither strictly autobiographical nor overly worshipful, instead allowing plenty of room for Lee’s flaws. Ms. Prepon and Mr. Offerman give particularly good performances as part of a laudable supporting cast, but this is rightfully a Sam Elliott showcase. His turn as Lee Hayden is a career high in a career full of highs. In his hands Hayden comes across as a sympathetic figure, a lost soul in search of solid ground rather than someone pathetically clueless. He doesn’t even require lines to carry the film’s weight: a scene in which he is read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music” occasionally cuts to the speaker, when a long take of Elliott would have more than the necessary impact.
The script by Brett Haley and Marc Basch tempers its heavy subject matter with well-placed laughs that never feel forced. Cinematographer Rob Givens provides some beautiful land and seascapes, even managing to make smog-choked Los Angeles skyline look appealing.
Clocking in at just over an hour and a half, The Hero stays just long enough to make the most of its welcome. Long-time admirers of Sam Elliott will find plenty to enjoy here, while those less familiar with his repertoire should leave the theater with a new favorite to appreciate. And maybe a small craving for barbecue, too. In stores Tuesday, September 19.