*** out of ****
(for drug use, strong language, and some sexual content)
Released: June 9, 2017 limited; June 30 expands
Runtime: 93 minutes
Director: Brett Haley
Starring: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, Katharine Ross
For an actor known for his iconic voice, Sam Elliott sure can pack an emotional punch in quiet, wordless silence.
Those are the kind of overdue revelations you get in The Hero, a late-in-life acting showcase for the character actor with the glorious baritone drawl. We all know he can drop wisdom on The Dude with those rich vocal pipes, but now we finally get to see the depths that Elliott can fully reveal.
Reminiscent of what Crazy Heart did for Jeff Bridges (which included nabbing him an Oscar), The Hero provides Elliott the role of an aging artist forced to take stock of his life, and he absolutely owns it. Yes, the legacy angst being explored here is familiar, but Elliott and director Brett Haley’s script make them very specific, and personal.
A famous actor past his prime (or, at least, his popularity), Lee Hayden (Elliott) can still make an easy buck lending his voice to the latest product placement. But such gigs, which can actually be obnoxiously demeaning to an experienced talent (trust me, the VO session scenes are spot-on, I know), may pay the bills but they also suck the soul.
Lee still has a passion to be artistically relevant, especially since downtime spent not acting forces him to confront the mess he’s made of his personal life: a divorce, and an estranged adult daughter. Real-life Elliott wife Katharine Ross (The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) plays the ex, and Jennifer Jones star Krysten Ritter is the justifiably embittered offspring.
When he’s not in the booth or being frustrated by the lack of offers his agent can wrangle, Lee likes to swing by the bachelor pad of his friend Jeremy (Nick Offerman, great as always) where they can unwind with some reefers. Lee has other, newer problems too, ones that bear the weight of impending mortality, but his existential malaise is upended when he makes a surprise connection with a friend of Jeremy’s, the 30s-ish Charlotte (Laura Prepon; Orange is the New Black, That 70s Show).
Yes, a May/December attraction sparks, but the connection is so casual, so kindred, so authentic, and based on souls connecting rather than fleeting desperate loneliness, that it actually works. There’s no BS or pretense involved, just genuine good humor, and you buy it – especially since the portrayal is smart enough to confront the fact that there’s a creepy element to it as well.
It all comes from a real place, tenderly and truthfully done, while also serving as a catalyst that helps get to the core of Lee’s existential crisis, his regrets, and the need to face them.
This familiar struggle, seen portrayed many times before, is made singular by how Elliott and Haley flesh Lee out. He’s a man with a hardworking ethos, someone who still feels vital in his twilight. Other movies would look at a similar figure with sympathetic eyes but see him as someone who’s afraid to accept his new reality, that his time has past, or that time has past him. But here, Lee sees himself correctly; it’s the vapid world that has lost sight of something.
Brett Haley, a relatively young filmmaker, has carved out an unexpected path for himself of late: crafting portraits of people in life’s last act. His previous movie, I’ll See You In My Dreams, was a similar showcase for actress Blythe Danner, written specifically for her. Elliott co-starred in that immensely endearing film as Danner’s love interest, and now Haley has in turn written one for him.
It, too, creates some really sweet moments of tenderness and grace, and does it all with a deft touch that lets even things like the reading of poetry not be saccharine or hackneyed but, well, actually poetic.
But it’s not just what Haley has provided Elliott on the page; it’s also what he allows Elliott time for on the screen. Some of the film’s best, most illuminating moments are lengthy close-ups of Elliott in which not a single word is spoken. Haley just rests on those shots, lingering, letting Elliott reveal Lee’s melancholy, his pain, his sorrow, by staying on Lee as he contemplates those burdens, and feels them.
Of course Elliott’s also great with words, too, and not just because he can make them sound good. An audition scene in the film’s second half, in which Lee reads for a part that cuts too close to the bone, is an absolute heartbreaker. It’s more than just “the Oscar clip”; it’s the kind of rare, special soul bearing moment that makes you wonder just how autobiographical it really is.
I don’t know, Elliott may be at complete and total peace in his personal life, but what he pours out in this scene makes it seem like he needed that release for himself.
Haley’s original title for this movie was Iceberg, to serve as a metaphor for a character who had much more going on beneath the surface than what others could only see above it. That idea is even spelled out at one point, which would’ve made the title too on-the-nose.
The Hero is a better one, particularly for this character, one who blanches at the notion of being labeled a hero – even though that’s exactly what he’s famous for – because he knows all-too-well that he’s far from it. The title, then, becomes appropriately two-fold: accurate, and ironic.
That’s the beauty of how the label is used here, and its a complex truth that Lee fails to appreciate: people need heroes, especially ones that are flawed, and who are brave enough to confess it.