The iconic Sam Elliott is one of the last true originals left standing in a film industry overrun with young, interchangeable, anonymous would-be leading men. His career has been long and diverse, although most people probably think of him in a cowboy hat or perhaps a military uniform when they think of what they’ve seen him in. He’s always projected a ruggedness and gravitas embodied by his weathered features, old school mustache and amazing rumble of a voice. Yet you’ve never seen him quite as he is in The Hero, the new indie drama written and directed by Brett Haley (I’ll See You in My Dreams).
Elliott gives one of those great, career-best performances as Lee Hayden, a bizarro version of Elliott himself. Like the real actor, Hayden is known for his tough exterior and distinctive character; also like the real man, he has made a living as a working actor for decades, while getting a lot of voiceover work between (for Hayden anyway) increasingly scarce screen jobs. That’s where the comparison seems to end: unlike Elliott, who’s been happily married for 33 years to actress Katharine Ross and who, by his own account, has a good relationship with his daughter, Hayden is long divorced from his ex-wife (played by Ross) and on the outs with his daughter (Krysten Ritter). And while Hayden is known for just one role — in the title movie — Elliott has a number of well-regarded performances on his resume.
The 72-year-old Hayden wants to work, but spends most of his time smoking pot with his neighbor and fellow actor Jeremy (Nick Offerman), with whom Hayden once starred on a short-lived TV series. Both actors seem adrift, but two things then happen to Hayden that force him to break out of his semi-daze: he meets a much younger woman named Charlotte (Laura Prepon) who brings the possibility of love back into his life, while at the same time getting some news from his doctor that forces him to reconsider where he’s been and where he’s going with his life.
Elliott, such a stalwart presence on the screen in mostly supporting or character roles, is mesmerizing in a part he clearly relishes. He underplays it all the way through, going for quiet moments of either happiness or desperation, but at the same time the actor is nakedly emotional throughout, often expressing his pain or self-recrimination purely through his eyes. It’s startling and even a bit unsettling to see an actor associated with genres like the Western, who’s the kind of person that many would probably describe as a “man’s man,” let down his guard so fearlessly.
It’s a credit to Elliott’s brave, sensitive work that you want to keep watching him even when the movie around him lets him down. As terrific and empathetic as Elliott is, the Hayden character is placed continually in clichéd situations with characters who are not nearly as well fleshed out. The great Katharine Ross gets precious little screen time as Hayden’s ex, while Ritter’s entire character, her face permanently in a scowl, is based on her rather vague dislike of her father. And we simply couldn’t buy Prepon’s Charlotte, who seems to exist solely to become a sexy new love interest for Hayden, and whose explanation that she digs older guys does not justify the vast age difference between them.
There are other inexplicable wrong notes in The Hero (like an audition scene that goes badly off the rails for reasons not entirely clear), indicating that writer/director Haley knew he had a great character in Hayden and a fantastic actor to play him, but wasn’t quite able to think of anything fresh beyond that. In the end, The Hero works as a showcase for a great actor but is not convincing as a drama on its own; in this case, however, the actor lives up to the title and the showcase is just enough.
The Hero is out now in limited release and will expand nationwide.