Sam Elliott is the kind of actor who people might know by face, or especially by mustache, but not by name. His legendary baritone voice was famously used to narrate the Coen Brothers’ classic The Big Lebowski, while the aforementioned famous, legendary grey mustache is the kind of physical feature that everybody who knows Elliot would surely mention in conversation about him. Truth be told, as much as he’s been a screen actor for nearly 4 decades now, he’s never truly had as Oscar-bait, chewy and generous a role as that of Lee Hayden in The Hero.
Elliot represents a cool, calm, macho side of Americana, so it’s not surprising to know that he plays a former Western movie star here. The title of the film refers to his character’s most well-known, and only, hit which got released more than 40 years ago. In fact, it’s not a far-cry from the character he played in 1993’s western Tombstone. One can even say that The Hero is autobiographical and personally connected to Elliot’s acting career.
The writer-director here is Brett Haley, coming off the excellent I’ll See You in My Dreams, and he seems to relish in having the chance to give Elliot his career-capping shot just like he did with Blythe Danner in the aforementioned film. The actor’s Lee Hayden is a washed up talent who resorts to, of course, doing voiceover work – how can anybody resist that famous western drawl? – to make ends meet. He also smokes pot, like a lot of pot, which he gets from his dealer and best friend Jeremy (a playful Nick Offerman). This loose-limbed lifestyle has turned Hayden into a kind of Califoria slacker that has sacrificed relationships with his daughter (Krysten Ritter) and wife (Elliot’s real-life wife Katharine Ross) for selfish reasons.
Things take a turn though when Hayden finds out some rather dreary news from his doctor: he has terminal stage 4 Pancreatic cancer and can, maybe with surgery, live for 5 more years. This wakes our hero up in ways that make him finally try to retake control of his life. It also helps that he meets a much younger woman named Charlotte (Laura Prepon) through Jeremy. Charlotte, as luck would have it, has a kink for older men and hangs out at the same taco place he frequents.
The screenplay skims through familiar tropes, encompassing the kind of existential cancer drama Sundance is sadly very well known for. However, if one would look at the movie in just that way, and many will, they would be missing the point. Haley, just like most cinephiles I presume, has a unadorned affection for Elliot’s infectious charisma. This is the 72 year-old actor’s time to shine and he nails the role with the kind of performance the Oscars love to reward, especially to a well-loved, old-time veteran who’s done his time and done it well in Hollywood. The show-stopping scene might just be when Lee invites Charlotte to be his date at a gala honoring his work and they, irresponsibly, take mollies to loosen up in front of the AACP crowd.
Of course, not everything works in the film, as a final act that tries to tug at the heart strings a little too aggressively almost damn near suffocates Elliot’s valiant efforts at making it all work. Also, the strained relationship with his daughter and wife is dealt with in such unsubtle, amateurish ways. A speech by his daughter at the film’s tail end is saccharine at best and shows Haley’s lack of subtleness and finesse. It’s the kind of moment that wouldn’t be far off in a TV movie.
The Hero is, purposely, slow-paced and feels like a film that just wants to keep a watchful, resounding eye on its titular character. The title means to be ironic since Lee is nowhere near a hero in real-life, having failed at everything and given up on building himself back up again. It all feels familiar in ways that Haley could have avoided, but his insistence in giving Elliot, an actor of wit and grace, a shot at carrying an entire film feels heaven sent. The dude would most probably abide.
Anchored by a top-notch performance from its lead, The Hero surpasses its cliches and becomes an ideal vehicle for its star. In Sam Elliot we trust.