Movie Review: “The Hero” – Leading Man Dreams

Written by Jeremiah Greville July 17, 2017

the hero

Is Sam Elliott playing Sam Elliott? That’s one of the biggest questions surrounding his newest film, The Hero. An independent film written exclusively for Elliott, The Hero is a personal tale that skews very close to Elliott’s real life and career. From the casting, to the plot, to the main character’s voice-over work, all of it screams metaphor for the real life star. Is Lee Hayden actually Sam Elliott? How much of what we’re seeing is based on real life? In the end, Lee Hayden might be a ‘What if?’ version of Sam Elliott, but regardless, it’s one of the finest roles of the beloved actor’s career.

The Hero stars Sam Elliott as Lee Hayden, a 71 year old former actor whose best days are long behind him. When Hayden learns that he has pancreatic cancer, he’s forced to confront his life and his mistakes, and has to decide if — and how — he wants to live. Along the way he tries to reunite with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) and ex-wife (Katharine Ross), while starting a surprising new relationship with a woman 30 years his junior, named Charlotte (Laura Prepon). Nick Offerman also stars as Jeremy, Hayden’s drug dealer and former co-star. It’s a small, deliberate film that exists primarily as a showcase for Elliot, and rests entirely on the venerable actor’s shoulders.

“Thing is, I got some news.”

The Hero is an intimate, vulnerable movie, and was written with Elliott in mind. The film plays with his
career and public persona to the point where it sometimes feels like a biography. It even stars Elliot’s real-life wife Katharine Ross as Hayden’s estranged ex-wife, Valarie. However, The Hero is ultimately fiction, and Elliott and Hayden are two very different men. While Hayden’s career peaked with an old western and TV series before stagnating, Elliot’s film career blossomed after he turned 40. Most of the roles that Sam Elliot is best known for came later in life, and he’s been celebrated as a unique character actor. The Hero offers him a rare opportunity to take on a leading man role, and soften his normally extreme western charm. His performance is extraordinary because of it, even as the script fails to live up to its star.

The hero

The distinction between leading men and character actors is sometimes fuzzy. Leading men often don’t play characters with the outsized traits and personality you see in supporting roles. Very often, leading men play a variation of a ‘type’ that runs closer to their own personality (or public persona). Tom Cruise never stops being Tom Cruise, but Gary Oldman changes for every role. In The Hero, Sam Elliot is not the hammy, lackadaisical cowpoke you might know him to be. He’s the man behind the smooth voice, behind the thick white ‘stache. And he’s surprisingly human. He’s an older man in a young person’s world, but he’s still living. Still here. Still human. The Hero lives or dies on Elliot’s performance, and he turns in a career best. The character actor is leading man once again.

“You wanna smoke some joints?”

From joking with his dealer and former co-star over a joint, to breaking down during an emotional audition, Elliot displays a powerful range throughout. His performance is subtle and constrained, yet each beat rings true and never betrays his character. At times he’s exactly the suave cowboy you’d expect, and at others it’s clear that’s only a façade. Lee Hayden is a man who pretends to be strong, and cuts himself off from a world he thinks has moved on. Yet Elliot fills him with life and spirit, and surprising vulnerability. When Hayden and Charlotte attend an award reception together on drugs, the result is one of the funniest and most unexpected scenes of the movie.

the hero

So much of The Hero is unexpected, but startlingly familiar. Hayden is a 71 year old western star, but hangs out with his dealer and googles stuff on his phone. He’s facing his death, but flirting with and dating the much younger Charlotte (Laura Prepon). Though the film is about Hayden’s mortality, it never lingers on his age or frailty. In fact, the most poignant moments come when he’s confronted with how others view his age. He questions why Charlotte would ever like him. He cringes at her jokes about “droopy balls” and old-person sex. Yet the film doesn’t shy away from the love scene between them, or the weighty conversations they have. The Hero shows Hayden as 71 and sexy, 71 and human. 71 and still trying. And it’s surprising to see, because it shouldn’t be surprising at all. Holy shit, old people are still people? Who woulda thunk it.

“I like trying to figure people out.”

But despite all of Elliott’s hard work, The Hero falters when it comes to the script and story. While the character work is top-notch and surprising, the plot is anything but, and the emotional arc that Hayden takes is so ill-defined that it’s barely there. The movie revolves around the same narrative clichés we’ve seen countless times before: an aging man trying to connect to an estranged daughter, a character unexpectedly ‘going viral’, etc. There are intermittent dream sequences of Hayden shooting a final western. They’re visually sumptuous, but ultimately go nowhere. Much of the movie is the same. You can see each plot point coming a mile away, and none of it is terribly original or compelling. Without Elliott’s performance to anchor the film, The Hero would’ve remained entirely inconsequential. The parts, here, are greater than the whole.

the hero

But while The Hero may not be entirely original or well-scripted, the draw in this case is Sam Elliot in a leading role. He’s more surprising and affecting than most would expect, and it was a genuine joy to see a 71 year old character treated like a human being. This isn’t a film about old age, like Going in Style, but about humanity in the face of old age. Though Hayden is dying, he’s full of life. And though Sam Elliott might be an under-appreciated actor, The Hero has proven the immense talent he still has. Hopefully this intimate film will lead to more leading roles for the experienced actor, and for other stars who might’ve faded, but still have charisma to spare.

My Rating: 7/10

the hero

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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