Much as he did with his previous film, I’ll See You In My Dreams (2015), filmmaker Brett Haley understands the competence of surrounding oneself with seasoned veterans and the depth of their wrinkled, weary faces to portray people grasping for meaning in their autumnal years. For that film it was Blythe Danner. Here, in his latest film titled The Hero, his aging lead star is none other than the seminal Sam Elliot.
An actor whose smoky, bellowing voice instills the fear of God whenever it rings across the screen, Elliot is is also slyly seductive in the way he tilts his head and that gleam in his eyes takes hold. The tilt belies a calm understanding of the nuances of his characters and the gleam seems to say, “yeah, I know I’m great at this.”
The fact that The Hero opens with Elliot using that trademark voice as he attempts to record a commercial for a barbecue sauce (and a line he’s continually asked to repeat over and over from an off screen director) clearly belies that filmmaker Haley wants to invest heavily in the persona of Elliot. He gets it out of the way quickly and then manages to craft a film that goes beyond the facile image setting and explores some genuinely touching ideas about age, acceptance and mortality. There’s lots of head tilts and eye gleams from Elliot along the way, though, to reel in the lifelong fans as well.
Playing Lee Hayden, a once semi-popular Western movie star, Elliot has settled into an existence of casual pot smoking and general anomie about life. Divorced and essentially estranged from his daughter (played by Krysten Ritter), Lee spends most of his days hanging out with drug dealer and one-time actor Jeremy (Nick Offerman). It’s during one of these hang out sessions that Lee meets the much younger Charlotte (Laura Prepon of That 70’s Show fame) and they begin a relationship.
Lee struggles to reconcile his budding, unsteady romance with Charlotte while also trying to reconnect with his family after receiving some earth-shattering news. When it rains it pours, as they say, and in Lee’s golden years, a hurricane has struck. It’s this impetus that tracks Lee through a majority of The Hero.
Filmed in a hushed, unobtrusive manner and featuring some brave moments of simply holding on Elliot’s face as a range of emotions washes over him, writer-director Haley nibbles at the edges of mediocrity with his May-December romance narrative, but manages to avoid the often cringe inducing obviousness of such a plot device in the way Elliot and Prepon act and react with each other. There’s an easiness between them. There’s also an easiness between Elliot and Offerman.
In one particular scene — after “going viral” for something he does and reaching quasi famous Hollywood visibility again — the two run lines together. It’s big budget science fiction garble, but the way Offerman reacts to Elliot’s readings of his lines is something to behold as we become acutely aware that the lines of garble on the page are slowly becoming pungent real life commentary by Elliot.
This is just one of the many surprising, touching details about The Hero. Not only is it a film that features a terrific ensemble, but its generous worldview about imperfect relationships and the frustrations of running out of time become much more haunting specters than not getting a certain part in a certain movies years ago. Although Elliot suffers from oblique dreams about his days as a wild West star, it’s only fitting that the final image should be that of ocean water slowly receding. The Hero wants us to feel that time can’t be stopped, only enjoyed. And Sam Elliot, in one of his finest roles, makes us truly feel it.
The Hero opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, June 16 at the Angelika Plano and the Landmark Magnolia in Dallas.