Helen of Troy’s face may have launched a thousand ships, but Sam Elliott’s silky-smooth baritone voice weakened a thousand women’s knees.
Director – Brett Haley
Screenplay – Brett Haley & Marc Basch
Producer – Houston King, Sam Bisbee & Erik Rommesmo
Rated R for drug use, language and some sexual content
Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) is a Western icon of both the big screen and TV whose intimidating stature and deep, golden voice have been revered by many for years. However, his best days in the film industry are long behind him. Nowadays, he spends his time reliving his glory days and smoking pot with his former co-star-turned-dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman) and making ends meet by recording voice-over tracks for commercials.
Some kind of life.
But then Lee is hit hard with a reality check after he’s given a surprising cancer diagnosis. That’s when he decides to set his priorities straight and end what could be his final days on a strong note, striking up a relationship with young, poetry-loving, stand-up comic Charlotte (Laura Prepon), attempting to reconnect with his estranged daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter) and searching for that one last good role to cement his legacy.
Whether or not co-writer/director Brett Haley wrote The Hero with Sam Elliott in mind to play Lee Hayden (a combination of legendary Western stars Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden), it’s hard not to see why Elliott is the perfect fit. Hayden’s career-defining Western, also titled The Hero, is exactly the type of Western Elliott would’ve have starred in, has starred in, and just might star in again at some point in the future. The mustachioed legend has graced the screens for nearly five decades, delivering strong, memorable turns in Mask, Tombstone, The Big Lebowski, The Contender, and Thank You for Smoking, while also taking time during TV commercials to remind us – or maybe it’s demand – that beef is, in fact, what’s for dinner. Elliott may not have reached A-list heights, but between his rugged appearance and iconic voice, he always has and still continues to make his presence known.
The Hero isn’t the first film to treat both its star and the character they’re portraying with a touch of meta-awareness. The most prominent example in recent years is Michael Keaton’s Birdman (which took meta to even higher levels than before earlier this year with Keaton playing a villainous “bird man” in Spider-Man: Homecoming). While The Hero hasn’t been generating the sort of buzz that Birdman enjoyed prior to and during its release, it still provides Elliott with an opportunity to showcase a range viewers may not have seen from him before. Is the venture successful, though?
The Good: With that deep, booming, baritone voice and intimidating stature, Elliott has often been typecast as tough guys throughout his career, so it’s kind of an ironic twist of fate that his career performance here in The Hero is his most vulnerable. Handling the emotional moments gracefully and delivering his comic relief with pitch-perfect timing (his body language alone during a patience-thinning session of BBQ infomercial voice-overs with a dissatisfied director is spot-on), the 73-year-old Elliott may be dropping the tough-guy shtick for a more age-appropriate role, but that in no way means he’s lost any steps in doing so as he still is able to command the screen at every turn here.
In one of the film’s more powerful moments, Hayden is finally offered a late-career opportunity in a YA fantasy, yet during his audition he slowly begins to realize the character he’s in the running for parallels his own failed parenting efforts. It’s during that sobering reality check that Elliott shifts from great performance to Oscar-worthy. Unfortunately, due to the time of year and the film’s small distributor lacking the resources needed for a significant “for your consideration” push, it’s a safe bet to say that Elliott’s work here will get overlooked. Of course that doesn’t diminish his performance at all, and after years of turning in dependable supporting turns, it’s great to see Elliott get the opportunity to prove his worth in a lead role. He more than proves his worth in an exceptional effort.
Backing up Elliott is a small but strong group of supporting players. Laura Prepon (That ’70s Show, Orange is the New Black) gives one of the strongest performances of her career as Hayden’s love interest, as does Krysten Ritter as his estranged daughter who still resents him for placing his career over his family. The always funny Nick Offerman provides fine, understated comic relief alongside Elliott as Jeremy, Hayden’s best friend and pot dealer who once shared a short-lived co-starring role with him on TV Western series.
Though co-writer/director Brett Haley elects a more character/performance focus for The Hero, he doesn’t completely shy away from some stylistic flourishes. A primary touch added by Haley is the way he blends events currently unfolding in Hayden’s life with segments of his iconic film. It’s a bold film-within-a-film move by Haley that could have risked either confusing the audience’s view of what’s real and fantasy, or just being over-indulgent direction, but it’s a concept that pays off effectively.
The Bad: No one will be championing the script as revolutionary any time soon. While Haley’s intention is to have The Hero focus less on narrative and more on his lead character, the film still can’t help but indulge in a few well-worn clichés. If you’ve seen any other film centering on former stars in their twilight trying to reignite their career and (or) reconnect with their estranged family, you know how things are gonna play out (the old man who needs “going viral” explained to him is an overused, on-the-nose bit, and just once it’d be nice to see the dad make plans with his daughter and actually find a way to make good on them).
Still, don’t let these small issues deter you from seeing this. It’s a testament to Elliott and the supporting cast’s strong work that these missteps, while acknowledged, are allowed to be overlooked, and though the film doesn’t really build to any strong dramatic conclusion, the final scene nevertheless provides a fulfilling, somewhat bittersweet, end to Hayden’s personal odyssey.
The Ugly: Cancer and irrelevancy. Both are career killers in their own, unique ways.
Consensus: While the story isn’t quite as inspiring as similar films before it, The Hero still manages to be a worthy effort thanks primarily to Sam Elliott’s career performance, a heartfelt, poignant turn that is more than capable of carrying the film from beginning to end.
Silver Screen Fanatic’s Verdict: I give The Hero a B+ (★★★).