In The Hero, Sam Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a lapsed Western star who sounds a bit familiar: fans describe his honeyed voice, his iconic mustache. Minus the “lapsed” part, we could be talking about Elliott himself. Of course, Elliott’s been working steadily since he arrived on the scene in 1969 (and Hollywood has been much better for it), but The Hero gives the actor his best cinematic role in years.
His last meaty big screen part was also thanks to Haley. The director’s first film, I’ll See You in My Dreams, is a beautiful tribute to friendship starring Blythe Danner and Martin Starr along with Elliott. The Hero’s different: a little rougher, a little quieter. The film opens with Hayden recording voice-over for a barbecue sauce ad. “Lone Star Barbecue Sauce. The perfect partner for your chicken,” he says in that wonderful, rumbly, Sam Elliott draw. An off-screen director asks him to do it again. And again. And again…. and again.
It’s a good introduction to Hayden’s life. He hasn’t had a real gig in years, and he’s estranged from his daughter (Krysten Ritter) and ex-wife (Katharine Ross). The only person he sees on a regular basis is his drug dealer and former child co-star Jeremy, played by a bewildered Nick Offerman in a tracksuit and suspect goatee. One day very early in the film, Hayden learns he has pancreatic cancer. And suddenly the old routine of barbecue sauce ads followed by THC-fueled oblivion isn’t quite as appealing.
Enter Laura Prepon as Charlotte, a stand-up comedian and another of Jeremy’s customers. She’s intrigued by Hayden, as are we all, and a May-December romance strikes up between the two just when Hayden needs the reset most. [Here’s a quick aside to say that normally a fictional romance between a 73-year-old actor and a 37-year-old actress would drive me bananas, but Hayden’s first film features something of a romance between Blythe and Starr, so he’s earned this one. And as a 35-year-old woman, if Sam Elliott asked me on a date, I would say yes.] Quite suddenly, Hayden’s life feels new and different, worth living – just when he may no longer have the option to live it.
The Hero works best as a vehicle for Elliott’s undeniable talent and charisma. Hayden is so subtle, so still. He’d be impossible to read if not for Elliott’s remarkably expressive eyes (and, okay, ‘stache). It’s a powerful performance told through quiet. He doesn’t do anything grandiose here, but it all sticks just the same. Prepon is immensely watchable as Charlotte, taking a role that could be little more than “young love interest” and giving her such life and breadth that we feel certain Charlotte exists on her own, entirely independent of Hayden’s observation. That’s a rare quality in a love interest, and it’s as much due to Prepon as it is to Haley. And Offerman is so lovable as Jeremy. He plays the character – whom Hayden met as an upstart kid on the set of a short-lived Western TV show decades ago – as young and naïve, a weird choice for the imposing middle-aged actor that works perfectly. His friendship with Hayden is beautiful and real, and if The Hero consisted of nothing but those two men smoking pot on the couch and jawing about life, I’d still love it.
It’s a beautiful film, almost impressionistic at times, glimmers of sunshine twinkling between tree branches, waves cresting over stone. The movie’s very light on score but heavy on sound design, and early in the film it’s almost oppressively quiet, as we’re sunk into the tedium of Hayden’s days.
The Hero is a small but lasting story, a lovely little pebble that I haven’t been able to shake out of my brain in the days since I saw it. And best of all, it’s a beautiful love letter to one of our most cherished actors.