“The Hero” is the Best Movie of 2017 so far, highlighted by the first Lead Actor nomination-worthy performance of the year. For the most part throughout his career, Sam Elliott has thrived as a character actor, best known for supporting work in films such as “Tombstone”, “The Big Lebowski” and “Hulk” – and for countless TV roles in the 70s and 80s. His trademark deep voice has also benefited him well.
In “The Hero”, Elliott stars as… a legendary film, TV and voice-over actor. However, at the age of 71, Lee Hayden isn’t getting many (or rather any) new offers. His voice still comes in handy for commercials for “Lone Star Barbecue Sauce – the perfect partner for your chicken”. Friend/drug dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman) also thinks Lee’s voice could “sell a s— load of weed”. But the movie scripts have stopped coming.
Lee learns from his agent that he’s getting a Lifetime Achievement award from a Western film appreciation society. He’s not thrilled, admitting he’s proud of only one movie he’s made his entire career: a 70s western called “The Hero”, which reached an iconic status with audiences. It’s the only film that people remember him for.
Living alone, long divorced and estranged from his daughter, Lee begins a relationship with the much younger Charlotte (Laura Prepon). He invites her to the award ceremony, where he unknowingly re-ignites his career. But he’s also carrying the burden of some devastating medical news, information he’s reluctant to share with ex-wife Valerie (played by Elliott’s real-life wife, Katharine Ross) and daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter).
On paper all of this may seem ordinary and a bit contrived. But in the hands of Elliott and director/co-writer Brett Haley (“I’ll See You in My Dreams”) it’s not only believable but stirring. There’s a subdued tone and slow pacing that fits this character study of a man dealing, simultaneously with his professional immortality and his personal mortality. In a way, “The Hero” is similar to 2014’s “Birdman” – with a beloved/washed-up actor trying to revive his career and repair his personal relationships before it’s too late. And this film grabbed me in a similar way.
This is a role you could easily see going to Jeff Bridges or Clint Eastwood, but once you witness Elliott’s hefty, moving performance you will not be able to imagine anyone else doing it better. He delivers a couple of “big speeches”, with the lifetime achievement one coming much earlier than you might think. That’s one of the ways “The Hero” turns the tables on the traditional interpretation of the “comeback artist”. Haley takes the story in unexpected directions, and yet they all feel quite real. This isn’t just a movie about movies (a form of art Jeremy tells Lee early on that he loves) but an examination about what it means to be a success. Some of the strongest moments are those without dialogue, as Lee’s dreams/fantasies take him (and us) on a tour of his life, which always seems to bring him back to the ocean.
The entire cast bring their A-games. Prepon (from “That 70s Show” and “Orange is the New Black”) has surprisingly authentic chemistry with Elliott. And Offerman follows-up his terrific work in “The Founder” with another quirky, layered effort. But it’s Elliott, in every single scene, who brings the heart and emotional intensity, with work that should not go unnoticed this Awards Season.
Unlike his on-screen character, Sam Elliott certainly has played more than one role that he’s proud of. But when he rides off into the sunset of his acting career, it’s this performance that he’ll be most remembered for.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Hero” gets an A-.
Running Time: 93 min.