It’s baffling that Sam Elliott never became a big-time leading man. The wolverine purr. The effortless charm. The acting chops rivaled only by the cookie duster mounted on his upper lip. This man deserves to have his name on a marquee—and with The Hero, he doesn’t let the opportunity go to waste.
Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a washed-up Hollywood star best known for his iconic Western roles a few decades back. Acting gigs are few and far between these days, so he spends his time doing commercial voiceover work, eating tacos, and getting stoned with his buddy/drug dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman). A visit to the doctor reveals an unfortunate biopsy result, and Lee must now come to terms with pancreatic cancer. How does he do that?
He doesn’t. The actor acts, telling those close to him he has plans for a new movie rather than telling them the painful truth. He avoids scheduling oncology appointments. He starts dating a woman (Laura Prepon) half his age. But a lifetime achievement award from the Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild and a potential role in an upcoming blockbuster send Lee headlong into thoughts of his own mortality.
Director Brett Haley reportedly wrote the movie for Elliott, and in ways, The Hero feels like nothing more than a vehicle for Elliott to display his considerable talents. The actor deftly runs the emotional gamut here: He manages to be both slick and goofy, he portrays drug use with refreshing realism, and he’s sympathetic when handling his perceived death sentence. When Lee needs to run lines for an audition, Elliott’s reading of the audition script is so potent that he transforms its stupid dialogue into something profound.
The moment is a testament to both Elliott’s skill and the power of good acting in general. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role, and in fact, Elliott’s effort here is so impressive that it alone makes the movie worth seeing. If anything, The Hero’s biggest flaw is that we don’t get enough of him.
At 93 minutes, the movie runs quick, cruising through scenes that otherwise could have been compelling analyses of dying and regret. Krysten Ritter feels underutilized in her estranged-daughter subplot. Lee never hits anywhere close to rock bottom. The Hero is shooting for the gravity of The Wrestler or Crazy Heart, but it’s never as cohesive or successful as a whole, because it doesn’t fully explore its own themes. Without Elliott handily carrying The Hero, there wouldn’t be too much distinguishing this movie from typical indie dramas.
It’d be a cliché to say that this is the role Sam Elliott was born to play, and maybe cheating since it was made for him. But it’s also true. Elliott may still be remembered as a standout supporting actor, but The Hero proves he can lead with the best of them.
Director: Brett Haley
Starring: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman
Theater: Edina Cinema, starts Friday