The Hero: We Can Be Heroes Just for One Film, by Ian Brill
Sam Elliott is a welcome face – and voice – whenever he comes upon the screen. In films like The Big Lebowski and Tombstone, he personifies masculine western grit. He’s such a potent presence on film, you can see why most filmmakers just have him play a supporting role. Brett Haley directed and co-wrote The Hero to be a starring feature for Elliott, and the camera adores Elliott throughout the film, even if the narrative occasionally falls short.
Elliott is Lee Hayden, an actor whose heyday was in the 70s and 80s. Known for westerns, his only consider work seems to be doing voiceovers for barbecue sauce commercials. Most of his time is spent smoking pot and drinking with his friend, actor-turned-drug dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman). His quiet but unfulfilling life is interrupted when he learns he has pancreatic cancer. The film’s title proves to be ironic, as Lee faces down cancer with anything but bravery. He does not tell anyone of his condition. He meets with his ex-wife (Katherine Ross) and his semi-estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) and tries to tell them, but lies to them at a time when honesty is what’s called for.
Keeping death at bay is the film’s theme and the pathos in Elliott’s performance. The reason to see The Hero is to see Elliott give a fully-rounded performance, playing emotions we don’t usually see from him. The highlight is when Lee accepts an award from a westerns-appreciation film society. Coming down from a high, he gives a monologue that is simultaneously awkward, funny, and regretful – three words you do not usually associate with Sam Elliott. There’s a lot of silence in that speech, plenty of time for the camera to meditate on Elliott. The lines on his face, the arched dark eyebrows under the white hair and, of course, that mustache tell us that this is a man is carrying the burden of many years with him, and does not know how to end his story. There are many moments of The Hero where Elliott’s face and body language take lead, including oblique dream sequences.
If the film fully completely embraced this meditative quality, it may have been an unqualified success. But instead a romantic storyline is introduced to drive the story. Laura Prepon plays Charlotte, a much younger lover of Elliott. This storyline may give the film structure, but it also reins in its ambitions, making many scenes feel rote. The worst offense is that all the time devoted to this relationship is time that could be spent with Ross and Ritter, playing characters with deep and complicated histories with Lee. The few scenes Elliott has with those actors will have you wishing we had more.
While the film is a journeyman effort, The Hero’s love for Elliott shines through in every scene. If you want to see an oft-supporting player get his due, this is the film.