As an ailing Western actor suddenly facing is own mortality, the value of his life and how he has lived it, Sam Elliott not only excels but also has the role of his nearly half-century career. The Hero is one of those movies that creeps up on you as it goes along and by its conclusion has knocked you out with an emotional punch that makes this one a keeper.
As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), the entire cast is simply superb, but it is Elliott’s show. As Lee Hayden, a fading cowboy star whose main claim to fame was a film called The Hero, he has the leading role he has always deserved but seldom gets. In some ways, this part — which was written for him by director and co-writer Brett Haley (with Marc Basch) — is the perfect career bookend for Elliott’s seminal work as a younger man questioning the worth of his life in the underrated 1976 gem Lifeguard, which Paramount’s marketing at the time unfortunately botched. Too often it seems Elliott is a go-to guy for Westerns, but as The Hero and recent supporting roles in such movies as Haley’s I’ll See You in My Dreams and opposite Lily Tomlin in a memorable scene in Grandma proves, a Sam Elliott renaissance is fully underway.
The character of Hayden, who is said to be a mixture of people like Robert Mitchum, James Coburn, Lee Marvin and others (but not in their league), fits Elliott perfectly. He nails this in every conceivable way and gets to the heart and soul of a man whose legacy seems to be just one single film and who wonders if it has all been worth the ride. Actors really are going to identify with much of this film, which shows just how mercurial the business can be. But The Hero goes much deeper than that, offering universal truths about life and living that people of all stripes will be able to identify with.
Hayden is a working thesp, now relegated mainly to voice-over work and minor projects. A turning point for the 71-year-old comes when he receives a life achievement award at a banquet for one of those local Western appreciation societies. He turns his acceptance speech into something unforgettable when he decides on the spot to pick a woman at random out of the audience and give her the award instead. That bit goes viral, and Hayden suddenly finds himself the talk of the town and a hot commodity again at a time when he least expects it — and after a devastating diagnosis of pancreatic cancer that he has not told anyone about. Just as he is facing the end of his life, he suddenly sees his fortunes turned around not only career-wise but also personally with a promising new relationship with a younger woman (Laura Prepon) who works as a stand-up comic.
In the film he is also dealing with an estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) and ex-wife (played nicely in a couple of scenes by Elliott’s real-life wife Katharine Ross). He also has a friend who is a drug dealer and infrequent actor (a very fine Nick Offerman). Haley skillfully weaves his life on- and offscreen throughout the film in a deliberately scaled-down pace that suits Elliott’s understated but enormously touching performance well. Scenes with Prepon really crackle, and the two have terrific chemistry. For Elliott there are many highlights, but none that resonates quite as emotionally as an audition for a shot at renewed stardom. If there has been better acting by anyone in 2017 so far, I have yet to see it. This is Oscar-worthy stuff.