For over four decades now, Sam Elliott has been a reliable big screen presence and one of the industry’s best character actors. With a trademark mustache and voice, he is iconic in his own way. In the past few years, Elliott has begun writing a new chapter in his career, stealing the show with supporting turns in top notch independent fare like “Grandma” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams”. Now, the filmmaker behind the latter has given Elliott a leading man role to play and he absolutely knocks it out of the park. “The Hero” represents the best work of Elliott’s career and shows that in his 70’s, he still has new things to share with his audience.
“The Hero” is undoubtedly a vehicle for Elliott, but it’s more than just that. A top tier character study, it fuses elements of cinematic cousins like “The Wrestler” to form something unique and supremely compelling. Co-writer/director Brett Haley has a knack for observing human nature and translating it to the screen. Here, he gives Elliott a hell of a role and also allows everyone to appreciate it. The end result is the best film of the year so far.
For Lee Hayden (Elliott), acting has been a job, save for the one role that he was actually proud of. Decades ago, he made a western called “The Hero” that briefly made him a cowboy star. Now, in his twilight years, he mostly does lucrative voice work and smokes pot with a former actor turned neighbor/dealer in Jeremy (Nick Offerman). Lee is just going through the motions, living a quietly sad life. A small western appreciation society wants to give him an award, but no one really wants to give him a true acting job. Then, his doctors diagnose him with pancreatic cancer, essentially giving him a death sentence. This rouses something small in him. It doesn’t lead to much beyond more smoking and a pained attempt at reconnecting with estranged daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), but it also has the side effect of introducing him to someone potentially special.
While smoking at Jeremy’s house, he meets a fellow customer in Charlotte (Laura Prepon). She quickly takes a shine to him, and he to her. When they run into each other again, they exchange numbers and end up out on a date. Lee knows it’s a bit odd to be around such a younger woman, but Charlotte is confident and doesn’t care. He hasn’t told her about his illness. In fact, no one knows. Not Charlotte, not Lucy, and not his ex wife Valerie (Katharine Ross), with whom he now shares a clear friendship.
A potential third act to his career opens up after he inadvertently becomes a viral sensation. Now, everyone wants a piece of Lee Hayden. Still, he’s more concerned with making sense of what he might have with Charlotte, what he used to have with Valerie, and what he wishes he has with Lucy. “The Hero” is all about coming to terms with life, whether it be in the realm of mortality, the past, regrets, or potential salvation. Lee was once a hero in movies and television, but now he might need one in real life.
In a just world, not only is Sam Elliott the Oscar frontrunner for this performance, he’d also take home the gold. “The Hero” may well be his crowning achievement. In much the same way that Mickey Rourke bared his soul in the aforementioned “The Wrestler,” so too does Elliott here. He’s able to convey so much with just a look. His stature easily conveys the hero he once was in his earlier years, while also showing what’s been missing since then. Even just an opening sequence humorously depicting voice work showcases how much has been sucked from his character’s soul. Elliott is perfect here. “The Hero” encapsulates everything you love about him into one package. The Academy needs to take notice.
The performances by the supporting cast shine as well. Elliott is best in show for sure, but Laura Prepon does tremendous work too. Prepon holds her own with Elliott in a way that’s filled with chemistry and is a joy to behold. She’s confident, sext, witty, and three dimensional. Charlotte is much more than just a love interest for Lee. In addition, Nick Offerman adds some strong comedic value, as well as some poignant interplay with Elliott. Krysten Ritter is under utilized a bit, but she gets a hell of a scene with Elliott and knocks it out of the park. Katharine Ross essentially cameos, but she makes the most of her limited time on the screen. Each one lends themselves to making this such a strong movie, though Elliott stands tall.
Clearly having relished the time spent with him while making “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” Haley wrote this for Elliott and “The Hero” fully makes use of him. The script Haley wrote with Marc Basch is simple yet incredibly elegant. Haley’s direction is fluid and sporadically adventurous, including a bold dream sequence that flows in and out of the narrative. Their work is excellent. If there’s a small misfire, it’s that occasionally certain plot developments walk up to the line of being cliche. They navigate the path well, but it’s what prevents this from being a perfect four star film. Still, from the funny yet melancholic bookends to the moving original song that runs over the end credits, this is a full cinematic meal.
With “The Hero,” both Elliott and Haley have achieved something special. This is, bar none, the best movie of 2017 to date. If you’re a fan of Elliott, character studies, or jut acting clinics in general, you owe it to yourself to see this film. It will stay with you long after the end credits roll. Seek this one out. You won’t regret it one bit.
“The Hero” is distributed by The Orchard and opens in theaters on June 9.
Audiences in New York City can see post screening Q and A events done by yours truly after the 7pm and 8pm showtimes at the Angelika Film Center and AMC Lincoln Center. They’ll be with Sam Elliott, Brett Haley, and Laura Prepon