Great actors just don’t play roles, they morph in such a way to become the character. In some cases that means taking on characteristics completely alien to the performer while other roles require the actor to look inward.
With a production like “The Hero,” all Sam Elliott had to do was look to his own life for inspiration to become the film’s central figure. He mixes elements of his long and storied career with the powerful script by director Brett Haley (“I’ll See You In My Dreams”) and co-writer Marc Basch to give the role a deep, dramatic soul. In the process, the film reaches beyond being merely a tale of an aging actor facing monumental changes to become a tale relatable to anyone who has reached the point in their life where there are being judged by career achievements.
Haley’s tale follows Lee Hayden (Elliott), a veteran actor who is only proud of one film in his long career, a much lauded western, “The Hero,” completed 40 years ago. Haley judiciously provides small glimpses into Hayden’s life but it’s clear his has been a journeyman existence that included a failed marriage and left him with an estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter).
Hayden’s uneventful life is shaken by a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He struggles with when – or slowly whether – he should tell his wife and daughter the news. His confusion is magnified by his own doubts about whether or not he’s going to battle the cancer.
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There is some light provided by Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a Los Angeles stand-up comedian who shows a deep interest for Hayden. His rugged exterior slowly begins to soften because of the attention he gets from the young life-loving suitor.
Everything Haley does in “The Hero” is designed to either be an examination of life or death. Giving the veteran actor such a young lover is both a way of showing how much Hayden’s trying to hold on to the years when he was virile both as an actor and lover while emphasizing what time has taken away from him.
Even Hayden’s dreams are filled with images of the rapidly approaching death that haunts him. Those images are as blatant as a hanging and as subtle as a director’s call for the action in a scene to end. These images often get replaced by scenes of the sea that represent the origin and sustaining of life.
All of this comes across because of Elliott. No actor carries such a distinct road map of life on his or her face as Elliott, and his life-etched features show the kind of journey so many make to their senior years. Elliot not only conveys complicated emotions with just a look from that expressive face but his deep voice sounds like the echoes of decades of life resonating off the walls of time. The look and sound of Elliott is enough to pull a person in to the point where there’s no ignoring the story being told.
And, he doesn’t have to tell the tale on his own.
Prepon brings just enough energy to make their June/November romance feel vibrant but never so enthusiastically played that the relationship seems shallow. Nick Offerman turns in a solid performance as the philosophical drug dealer who becomes the bridge for Hayden and Charlotte.
It’s nice to see Elliott and Katharine Ross together in any project as the real-life married couple always has seemed like a pair forged by the muses of love. The weakest link is Ritter but she had little to work with considering she had to play the under-loved offspring.
Haley should have done more with Ritter’s character but his overall effort is a touching and thought-provoking story about what it is like to grow old. The passion to be wanted and to perform the craft developed through decades of hard work make for a universal theme delivered with the kind of transformative acting work that comes from outstanding veteran actors like Elliott.
“The Hero” shows that sometimes the most heroic thing a person can do is live life.
☆☆☆ out of 4
Cast: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter, Katharine Ross.
Director: Brett Haley.
Running time: 93 minutes.
Rated: R for drug use, language.