In ‘The Hero,’ a cowboy actor faces the sunset
By Mick LaSalle
June 14, 2017
Laura Prepon and Sam Elliott in 'The Hero'
“The Hero” tells the story of a cowboy actor coming close to the end of an almost long but not-quite-long-enough life. The grim medical diagnosis comes in the first minute or two. Think of it as getting the worst part over with, so we can all enjoy the rest of the movie.
The film stars Sam Elliott and was clearly tailored for him. He plays an actor noted for his distinctive mustache and deep rich voice. When we first meet him, he is recording a voice-over for a barbecue-sauce commercial, but the death sentence — the diagnosis is pretty close to definitive — forces him to face his existence, to either look for meaning in his life or to work strenuously to avoid thinking at all.
“The Hero” was directed and co-written by Brett Haley, a young filmmaker who is making a specialty of early old age. As in “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” which starred Blythe Danner, the film features a vaguely depressed person of around 70, who is coming close to a dependency on substances. In “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” Danner was leaning a little too hard on the Chardonnay. In “The Hero,” Elliott — or rather Western icon Lee Hayden — is pretty close to a pothead.
But then, things change. Just when he thinks there’s nothing left to do but get high and die, a reason to live comes through the door in the form of Laura Prepon, as a lively gorgeous woman who just happens to like old guys. Lee doesn’t even have to do anything. He’s just sitting on the couch at a friend’s house, getting stoned, with one foot and four toes in the grave. And then ... she walks in.
To talk about the story in “The Hero” in such blunt terms makes it sound silly. But in the actual experience, it’s not silly at all, which tells us something about Haley as a writer-director. He knows what he can get away with. He knows what his actors can sell. He knows how to create an emotional universe in which this kind of improbable thing doesn’t seem a matter of screenwriting convenience, but destiny.
There’s an alertness to texture here, to the beauty of the landscape, to the sight of the ocean and the sky, as though the audience were being forced to notice a world that’s slipping away from us. Likewise, Haley’s direction encourages the viewer to apply that alertness to the human interactions, to the ebb and flow of conversation, to looks and gestures. Everything becomes just a little more important.
As in Haley’s “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” in which he played a supporting role, Elliott suggests a depth of insight under the genial facade, a sad philosophy that never needs to be voiced, and yet is understood. Prepon, in a role that could have been a mere symbol of the life force, makes the young lover into someone specific and winning — someone with a gift for pleasure, but with her own unspoken pain. It should be mentioned also that Katharine Ross, Elliott’s real-life wife, appears in the film as Lee’s ex-wife, but only in two brief scenes.
Like “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “The Hero” is a film about renewal, about an unexpected rebirth that doesn’t come easy and can never be complete but that represents a recommitment to life, nonetheless. Ultimately, I think “I’ll See You in My Dreams” is the superior movie, because it doesn’t rely on the device of a dying protagonist, but they’re both a piece and both deserve to be seen.
In “The Hero,” as elsewhere, Haley really is dealing with the subject of heroism, but the kind of heroism not usually found in movies — the heroism of daily life.
By Sara Stewart
January 26, 2017
The aging-legend drama “The Hero” is as mellifluous as star Sam Elliott’s drawling baritone. The spectacularly mustached actor plays Lee Hayden, a onetime A-lister of Westerns better known now as the voice of a certain brand of barbecue sauce. Our first glimpse of him is recording the same tagline, ad infinitum, in a studio: Glamorous, it’s not.
Like others in this genre — “The Wrestler,” “Crazy Heart” — “The Hero” features a May-December romance, with Lee pursued by a stand-up comic, Charlotte (“Orange Is the New Black” star Laura Prepon), who’s half his age. The difference here, not a totally redemptive one, is how much lip service the script pays to the age difference: Lee’s weirded-out by it, and Charlotte, in a tough-to-watch scene, uses his aging body as fodder for a bit at a stand-up showcase.
Lee’s been spending his near-retired days smoking weed with a former TV co-star (Nick Offerman) who’s become his de facto dealer (even though the Californian could just get it himself these days). But a cancer diagnosis shocks him out of his languid haze, pushing him to try to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) and say yes to a date with 30-something Charlotte.
Their outing, to a Western-appreciation society’s awards dinner, is the most delightful scene in a film full of them. Charlotte persuades Lee to sprinkle a little Molly into his Champagne on the limo ride there, and the two of them giggle their way through the evening — a ceremony held in a dingy hotel ballroom packed with a senior-citizen crowd thrilled at the sight of their graying hero. Upon accepting a lifetime achievement award from the group, Lee goes rogue, and his speech — a gently populist gesture toward the fans — goes viral, a concept Charlotte has to teach him the next day.
Director Brett Haley moves along, like Lee, at a leisurely pace, delving every so often into Lee’s dreams, in which he faces off against death in a surreal reprise of his most famous role in a film called “The Hero.” Elliott’s a master of understatement, and just watching him stare off into the distance, mulling mortality with a weathered cowboy stance, is true cinematic Zen.