Opening wide in the Valley this week:
The Hero—Last Friday, in my review of The Exception, I asked if any actor since Paul Newman has aged as well as Christopher Plummer. I meant the question rhetorically, but if somebody had countered it by suggesting Sam Elliot, I would have had to admit that, yeah, even allowing for the fact that he’s more than a decade younger than Plummer, the ol’ cowpoke is aging pretty spectacularly.
Pretty much the walking definition of the word “lanky,” Elliot has been around since the late ‘60s—his feature debut was a small role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He did studly, lackadaisical leading-man work in stuff like Frogs (1972) and the underrated Lifeguard (1976) and copious TV, including a season on Mission: Impossible. In the ‘80s, he appeared in many TV-movie and mini-series westerns, and the older he’s gotten—and the bushier his mustache has gotten—the more he seems like he was born for that genre.
He plays the title character in this drama. Or rather, he plays the actor who played the title character, in the only movie of his career, he says, that he’s proud of.
Lee Hayden is a has-been, pothead western movie and TV star. His career these days consists mostly of tedious voice-over work, in his beautiful deep rumble, for barbeque sauce commercials. Long divorced, he’s semi-estranged from his ex (Katharine Ross) and daughter (Krysten Ritter), but he has a vaguely father-son relationship with his washed-up-actor pot dealer (Nick Offerman), and while he’s underemployed, bored and not without regrets, his life isn’t unpleasant.
Or, rather, it would be pleasant, if it weren’t for that pesky pancreatic cancer diagnosis.
Directed by Brett Haley from a script he wrote with Marc Basch, The Hero traces how Lee’s condition, which he initially hides from his loved ones—he keeps coming up to the brink of telling them, and then chickening out—haunts his spaghetti-western-style dreams. We’re also shown his romance with the pearlescent Charlotte (Laura Prepon), around half his age, who shows up at the dealer’s house and takes a shine to Lee. She’s his date at a dinner at which he is given a life-achievement award, and from which a video of his drug-fueled acceptance speech “goes viral.” He suddenly, to his great confusion, finds himself back on the pop-culture radar.
Charlotte’s not the sort of woman who turns up every day, and Lee’s life isn’t like most people’s lives. For a while, I couldn’t help but wonder how I was supposed to feel too sorry for a guy who, at 71, gets to live in a lovely beach house, be given life achievement awards and go to bed with Laura Prepon. But of course that’s the point. Age and illness have a way of screwing up people’s lives just about the time they’re starting to learn how to live them properly—to know what’s really important.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the effortless grace of Elliot’s work here on the grounds that he’s “just playing himself.” First of all, he isn’t—Elliot has done plenty of voice-overs, certainly, but he’s never qualified as a has-been. If anything, he’s become more relevant as he’s gotten older. Admittedly, he’s sometimes been used semi-ironically—a slice of ‘70s beefcake that aged unusually well into a sort of hunk emeritus in films like The Big Lebowski and Up in the Air. In his one brief scene in 2015’s Grandma, however, he showed he could go deeper than this, giving a startlingly focused, emotional performance, maybe the best of his career.
Or, rather, maybe the best of his career until The Hero. Haley’s directorial touch is low-key, but the tension between Elliot’s iconic cowboy image and the character’s fear and sadness, his intense desire to live longer, is moving.