“The Hero” – “Lone Star Barbeque Sauce, the perfect partner for your chicken.”- Lee Hayden
“You seem sad.” – Charlotte, speaking to Lee
Sam Elliott is enjoying a busy and celebrated television and film career, spanning 48 years and counting. He has starred in very memorable supporting roles over the years, including “Mask” (1985), “Road House” (1989), “Tombstone” (1993), “We Were Soldiers” (2002), and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (2015), and when you think of Elliott, two thoughts immediately come to mind: his voice and his mustache. In “The Hero”, Elliott plays an actor, Lee Hayden, who is also known for his mustache and voice, and the film zeroes in on one of his obvious physical signatures from the get-go. In the opening scene, Lee records a spot for Lone Star Barbeque Sauce in a funny bit in which his rich, deep vocal chords repeatedly pour over an endorsement for this particular condiment.
He makes a good living and lives comfortably in Los Angeles – via past royalties and paydays from the 1970s and 1980s – but, at 71 years old, he is itching for some meaningful work. His agent, however, says that nothing is available at the moment and delivers an empty promise, “We’re expecting something soon.”
Lee grasps the grim reality that his future acting prospects are few, but to make matters much, much worse, his current health problems prove deadly serious. The prognosis is dire. With only one, prideful acting accomplishment on his resume and painful conflicts with family, he owns massive life regrets, and his time is short.
Elliott does not star in leading roles very often (“The Legacy” (1979) and “Conagher” (1991), for example). The list might be short, but he truly shines as the lead in “The Hero”, a role that fits perfectly for him. Elliott is known for playing tough guys with strong moral compasses, and his onscreen voice can bring a sense of calm and quiet confidence. Now, Lee may not a have the most “northbound” compass – as characterized by his drug habits and emotional distance from his estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter) – but he establishes a relaxed, casual hand through unobtrusive moments of reflection but also fear. The end is near. Director/cowriter Brett Haley guides us through this small, indie picture with big ideas about broken relationships, facing death and living with regrets, and he wraps it around Lee, who attempts to navigate his way without obvious answers.
The story arc, admittedly, is not terribly remarkable nor is the subject matter unfamiliar, and in fact, in many cases, the film’s plot points (which I will not name in this review) are easily telegraphed. If you wish to take notes or keep score with a notebook and pen in the movie theatre, you’ll find it a piece of cake to scribe checkmarks or draw lines to connect the dots. Although the narrative feels predictable, it does engage, and primarily due to Haley’s gentle hand with the material and Elliott’s absorbing performance.
Haley films many of his scenes in quiet locales, like Lee’s place, his friend Jeremy’s (Nick Offerman) house, a random stop at a food truck, and gorgeous, empty Southern California beaches, in which crashing waves strike land. The purposeful lack of onscreen distractions gives Lee space to exist, think, anguish, and cope. Like the solitary resonance of crashing waves, sometimes Haley doles out soft, singular sounds in other places to create a sense of serenity. In one scene, we only hear coffee brewing in the kitchen, and in another, Lee cleans the living room table with his hand, as we listen to the subtle brush of tiny marijuana leaves rolling towards the end of the wooden slab. In some instances, Lee sits in his home in total silence, sans his thumb tapping his phone.
While the tranquil moments serve their purpose, Offerman and Laura Prepon wonderfully compliment Elliott in supporting Lee and pushing him past his obstacles, respectively. Jeremy (Offerman) is probably his closest friend but doubles as his drug dealer, and while that sounds like a dubious relationship on the surface, Offerman’s Jeremy offers very welcomed, droll conversations and close camaraderie, as they smoke pot and eat Chinese food on any given lazy, weekday afternoon. Charlotte (Prepon) brings some surprises with frank talk and meaningful, fresh life-perspectives. An edgy, insightful 30-something with an unknown, dicey past, Charlotte also carries a strong light with good intentions, even if she includes devilish twists along the way.
Both Jeremy and Charlotte extend good karma for Lee, and every single interaction works cinematically, because of the actors’ chemistry and a crisp, honest script. Elliott carries the film on his own, but you might find yourself waiting for another chat with Jeremy about icebergs or a hint about Charlotte’s backstory. Katharine Ross (who is Elliott’s wife off-screen) and Ritter deliver sincere moments as well, but this is Lee’s journey. Elliott completely captures this man who – for decades – swallowed his guilt, grief and failed accomplishments, but these demons finally seep to the surface.
Accompanied by a flowing, mystical soundtrack, there’s almost a Buddhist quality to “The Hero”, as it embraces nature, dabs into poetry, speaks of immortality, and attempts to heal a damaged person and his broken relationships. Lee is a hero to his legion of fans, but not to himself, and the film explores this through spoken and visual metaphors, including dream sequences from his iconic 1970s western, “The Hero”. Not every dream sequence was completely necessary, but still, after seeing this film, I immediately felt required to go back and watch this talented, charismatic actor’s aforementioned supporting performances again. Elliott’s voice certainly can sell barbeque sauce on the big screen, and he absolutely excels in a starring role. I am sold.