The Hero, 2017.
Directed by Brett Haley.
Starring Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, and Katherine Ross.
With his glory days far behind him, a fading movie star is forced to confront his past and his own mortality.
It’s one of the most distinctive voices in the movies. Sam Elliott’s gravelly tones have been his fortune over the years and, coupled with a heavy moustache, it makes him unmistakable. Many of his roles have been either in westerns or as cowboy-type characters, so there’s more than a hint of playing himself in The Hero.
But it isn’t much more than a hint, because here he plays an actor whose heyday is long gone. A big star in westerns during the ’70s and ’80s, Lee Hayden (Elliott) is such an iconic figure that a fan association wants to give him a lifetime achievement award. They’re blissfully unaware of the reality, that he scratches a living from commercials and voice overs (with a voice like that, he has to) and spends most of his time at his neighbour’s. Jeremy (Nick Offerman) also happens to be his drug dealer, so they smoke weed together, eat Chinese food and watch old movies. And that’s about it – until he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), one of Jeremy’s other regulars. She helps him come to terms with the other reality in his life. What he’s not told anybody is that he’s been diagnosed with cancer.
Lee’s best known film also happens to be called The Hero, but in the context of his own personal story, it has more than a smidge of irony. He’s estranged from his wife, Val (Elliott’s real life wife, Katharine Ross) and things are even more strained with daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter). His reaction to his illness is less than heroic as well. Every time he’s on the verge of telling somebody about his diagnosis – he always opens with “I’ve got something to tell you …..” – he dodges it and comes up with what he later refers to as “a pipedream” that he’s going to make a movie. It would be the first for years – and yet it nearly comes true when he becomes an overnight internet sensation.
With its emphasis on mortality and immortality, The Hero is sombre and reflective, one where the sea provides a frequent metaphor for the way life never stops, whatever happens to us mere mortals. The role was written with Elliott in mind and fits him like a glove, so much so that he dominates the film, making the other characters look under-drawn. The exception is Nick Offerman as his neighbour/dealer: he’s another former actor, the two became friends on set and they make a nicely understated double act.
Where the film lets itself down is in the dream sequences, based around Lee’s iconic western role but showing him as he is now. While they look authentic enough, they’re essentially padding and offer little insight into his emotional turmoil, nor do they contribute much to the plot. It also suffers from an ending which is pat to the point of facile and doesn’t really do justice to Elliott’s performance. And the scene where he auditions for a sci-fi blockbuster is so close to his own situation with his daughter that it’s heavy handed. A little more subtlety wouldn’t have gone amiss.
It’s a sad film, one filled with longing, regret and heartache, not just from Lee himself but those closest to him. And there’s little to relieve the grey tone, apart from the lighter moments between Elliott and Offerman. The Hero has its emotional moments but, in the end, this is Elliott’s film and his alone.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.