At first glance there appears a thin line between the character Sam Elliot plays in the new drama The Hero and Elliot himself. He’s a Western actor in his seventies with a golden drawl that can sell practically anything; that’s the character, not Elliot.
But in a recording studio, when you hear him deliver the line, “Lone Star Barbecue sauce, the perfect pardner for your chicken,” you swear you’ve heard it before, for real, on TV. Fortunately, for reasons soon to be revealed, Lee Hayden (Elliot) is fictional. His film career is behind him; he supplements what income he has with voice-over work; he smokes a lot of weed while hanging out with his friend and dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman); and he’s just about to hear something from his doctor that will change everything.
“I know we were hoping to get good news about this biopsy,” the doctor tells Lee, “But I’m afraid I don’t.” Lee has pancreatic cancer, and according to the survival rate that Lee researches online, it doesn’t look good.
The thing with Lee is, he can’t commit; he wants something else in his life to happen before he deals with the issue of cancer. When he receives a call from the clinic to set an appointment for his first treatment, he delays it, telling the voice on the line he’ll call her back. When he tries to reunite with his grown daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter) and let her know what’s happened, he begins by saying, “I’ve got something to tell you.” Then, after a moment’s pause, rather than tell the truth, he invents a story about making a new movie. And it’s the same with his ex, Valarie (The Graduate’s Elaine and Elliot’s real-life wife, Katharine Ross) and his dealer/friend Nick. With Nick, he’d rather kick-back, get stoned and watch Buster Keaton DVDs.
There’s something else about Lee. Yes, he was a Western icon, but his resume isn’t altogether prolific. The only film of which he’s proud occurred forty years ago. It was called The Hero, and Lee often dreams of his favorite performance. He wants to make a film again, maybe something in the same vein. Interestingly, director Brett Haley shoots those dreams not as they would haphazardly occur while sleeping, but as widescreen, technicolor movie clips that usually end with the voice of a director yelling, “Cut.” They’re wish-fulfillment fantasies portrayed as a technicolor movie; Lee would love to complete his career with one last performance to seal his legacy. Then, by channels and opportunities that didn’t exist during his heyday, an opportunity really does comes along.
Because of social media, in the way that Robert De Niro’s character in The Comedian had a career surge because of a You Tube video, so it is with Lee. Accompanied with a young woman, Charlotte (Laura Prepon), with whom he’s begun an unexpected relationship – they both met at the weed dealer’s home – Lee attends a small award ceremony from a western appreciation society to receive a Lifetime Achievement honor. Due to some Ecstasy slipped into his drink by Charlotte, while giving his slow and somewhat meandering acceptance speech, Lee takes the award then hands it to a fan in the audience, telling her to keep it. He’s not deserving of it, he states. Someone records the moment and puts it online. Overnight, the video goes viral with two million hits, and Lee is suddenly, if temporarily, in demand.
The Hero is narrated with a deliberate, slow-paced rhythm, something like Elliot’s voice-over delivery, but even though the film runs at only ninety-three minutes, it’s a story that feels stretched; it could have been told in under an hour and still remained leisurely. But while it may feel like a novella padded with lengthy, reflective pauses to make it something longer, Elliot himself never fails to hold your attention. As with Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy in 2009’s The Last Station, Elliot has grown into the role; it’s one that was waiting for him, one he could never have made work in quite the same way at an earlier time.
Because of his craggy though handsome features and that deep, golden-hewed voice, Elliot makes what he does look and sound easy. There must be those who say to themselves, if only I had a voice like that, I could do the same, but they’d be wrong; so much more than just a voice is required.
There’s a desktop picture on best friend Nick’s monitor that portrays an iceberg, both the small peak above the water’s surface and the mass below. It’s an illustration of what we see and what we don’t see when it comes to the craft of acting. What we don’t see are the years of hard work below the surface to get to where an actor needs to be. All we see is the part above, the result. In advance of his new movie audition, when Lee practices lines from the screenplay, it begins with what sounds like a simple read, but then something emotional develops, something that feels real, and something that only experience and a real talent can bring to the surface. That single scene may well be Elliot’s finest moment on film.
The Hero is ultimately minor, but it remains worth seeing for Sam Elliot. He is quite unique.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 93 minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)