From the moment The Hero opens, director Brett Haley is so confident in Sam Elliott’s iconic deep, rumbling voice that you hear him before you see him. As Lee Hayden, a washed-up western film star, Elliot is shilling for “Lone Star Barbeque Sauce: the perfect partner for your chicken.” The audio clip plays over a black screen before you finally see Lee in the sound booth. And Elliot’s voice really is something, which makes it even more incredible that much of the best work he does in The Hero is done silently.
In one scene, for example, Lee is being honored with a lifetime achievement award, and just before he goes to receive it, he has to sit through a clip of his best-known film – the only one he’s proud of. Lee can’t watch, and he can’t look away. He’s proud of the film and embarrassed that the peak of his career was so long ago. He’s high (literally), and he’s sobered by the moment. Elliot doesn’t say a word, but over the 15 or 20-second scene, he brings you through the whole spectrum of Lee’s uneasy emotions.
Haley, who also wrote the script for The Hero along with Marc Basch, is a good match for Elliot and offers him plenty of space to work. The film takes place mostly over the course of a couple of weeks around the time that 71-year-old Lee is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, stirring up panic in his normally calm, if slightly boring and mildly dissatisfying life. Lee is trying to contain and manage his internal chaos and in doing so, reveals a vulnerability that has little to do with his illness.
He doesn’t intentionally expose such raw parts of himself, but opportunities present themselves, in particular in the form of a friend-of-a-friend named Charlotte (Laura Prepon). The two start dating, and it’s hard to tell if there’s any real reason at the beginning other than they’re both kind of bored and intrigued by the possibility of the other. It’s as good a reason as any, even if he’s twice her age, and there’s something sort of refreshing about the fact that the relationship is bumpy, based in large part on a shared affinity for drugs, and not terribly complicated.
In any case, Lee is looking to build relationships beyond just the one he might be creating with Charlotte. He has an estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) and an ex-wife (Katharine Ross), with whom he’s at least close enough to check in occasionally. It’s a little clichéd that Lee has damaged these relationships, maybe beyond repair, but it says something about his character that he’s trying to fix them, and it says even more that he’s not very good at it.
The Hero could have been just another “older guy coming to terms with mortality” movie, but to Haley’s credit, there are a variety of details that add dimension to the film. For example, the first view we get of the low-budget hotel ballroom event hosted by “The Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild” to give Lee his lifetime achievement award perfectly conveys the kind of feelings of humility Lee is about to have when he walks in a few seconds later. It is incredibly effective when the camera captures Lee and his ex-wife from a distance as he tells her about his illness, allowing Elliot again to do all of his work with his body, jiggling his knees and betraying his anxiety as he tries to calmly deliver the news.
Thanks to Haley, The Hero is a good film aside from Sam Elliot. But Elliot brings it to another level. I’d be willing to bet that if people are talking about this movie when awards season comes around, it’s because they’re talking about Elliot. And if they aren’t, it’ll be a shame, but perhaps there’s an appreciation guild of some kind that can offer a consolation prize. He was good enough in The Hero to convince you that it might even be enough.