Written for Sam Elliot and directed by Brett Haley, The Hero is a loving homage to the star and his long running career as consummate character actor. This deep and downbeat drama also manages to pay tribute to all those TV westerns where Sam, along with fan favorite Tom Selleck, helped to bring the tales of Louis L’Amour to life. Elliot, in short, rocks in his performance and should, if nothing else, get an Oscar nod for this role.
This is not a fun film to watch. With the exception of the award ceremony where Elliot proves he can play “high” with the best of them, the film is a cold hard look at the profession, aging and, ultimately, death. It also, through the auspices of Laura Prepon, tells us that romance is not dead at 71.
Co-written by Haley and Marc Basch The Hero tells the story of Lee Hayden. (Can there be a better name than this for a one time western star?) Lee is 71. His glory days are far behind him and he is estranged from his daughter (Krysten Ritter). Lee learns that he is to receive an award for his star turn in an old western “The Hero.”
Before he can attend the ceremony, Lee marches through his days as a voice over artist; flogging barbecue sauce, smoking pot and wondering about his existence. He meets Charlotte (Prepon) who has a thing for older men and Lee learns that he is in the final stages of pancreatic cancer.
The Hero is a slow, almost languid, film. It is more interested in looking at Lee’s state of mind and the internal machinations of a man who knows he is dying. (There is a sort of irony at work here. Patrick Swayze – Elliot’s co-star in Roadhouse – died from pancreatic cancer. As this was written for Elliot, it stands to reason that this may be a slight nod to the late actor.)
The film has a fine mix of comedic moments (very low key) and a number of tearful scenes. Elliot’s resurgence in the social realm, after his award speech is broadcast on YouTube, leads to an audition. It is not a surprising scene. There is a splendid buildup to the moment in a previous scene.
Lee reads his sides with onetime costar and drug dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman). The lines deal with a space cowboy who is trying to save his estranged daughter. Themes of desertion, death and betrayal resonate in the brief bit of dialogue and the stage is set for what transpires later.
Katherine Ross (Elliot’s real life wife) plays his ex with conviction and the only complaint here would be with her lack of screen time. This is, however, Elliot’s story so everyone else must stay on the periphery of the tale. The Hero strides slowly towards its somewhat ambiguous ending with a pace that is evocative of a western hero striding slowly down main street; spurs jangling, to that fateful shootout.
Prepon is spot on as Hayward’s young poetry obsessed lover. Ritter proves that whether she is playing a Marvel superhero, doomed drug addict or the estranged daughter of a self centered actor, she nails the character completely.
The Hero is the perfect counterpoint to the redneck comedy on Netflix where Elliot has been both miscast and misplaced. The actor can do comedy brilliantly and still manages to, with nary a word spoken, show pathos almost effortlessly.
(When Sam cries we all cry, such is his depth and honesty.)
The Hero is a full five star film, despite its somewhat lacklustre ending. The film is one that needs to be seen and savoured. Haley has put his heart and soul into this cinematic love letter to Elliot and this should net some gongs at the next Oscar ceremony.