Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Review: "The Hero"
There’s a scene in “The Hero” where Sam Elliott, as aging cowboy actor Lee Hayden, runs through lines for an audition. It’s for one of those generic big-budget spectacles, the sort of movie that could give Lee’s moribund career a life-changing boost.
And the dialogue is just complete garbage -- we’re talking Razzies awards territory here.
Yet Lee invests the lines with so much authority, such hard-wrung emotional intensity, that you’d swear he’d sauntered out of a shot from “Unforgiven.” His reading leaves the buddy running lines with him, and us, just floored.
You could say much the same about the whole of Elliott’s performance, which should be remembered as the zenith of a long and noble career.
Blessed with a voice like creased leather and a face straight out of a Ken Burns historical documentary -- that iron glare, haphazard angles and totemic mustache -- Elliott has spent decades playing cowpokes, deputies and other hard men who support the hero of the story with unflagging loyalty and, when necessary, sterner steps.
Now Elliott is the leading man, playing a sort-of version of himself, if maybe a few rungs down the ladder of fame.
Lee is a TV and film actor whose heyday faded half a lifetime ago. By his own reckoning he only ever made one movie worth a damn, from which this film takes its title. These days he mostly just smokes a lot of weed, hangs around with his former co-star/solitary friend/drug dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman), and waits for the phone to ring.
His only real gig is doing voiceovers, commercials for barbecue sauce and such – something the real-life Elliott knows a thing or two about as pitchman for trucks, beef and beer. In the opening scene, he is repeatedly prompted by the offscreen technician to do “just one more” take, ad nauseum.
It’s an apt metaphor for Lee’s career: stuck in a rut, but one he’d like to keep plying if anybody’d let him climb back in the saddle for real.
His agent, who clearly has bigger clients on his mind, drops one piece of news: a group called the Western Appreciation and Preservation Society would like to give him their lifetime achievement award. It’s just a bunch of oldsters who like wearing cowboy hats and throw themselves a party once a year, and Lee brushes it off.
He is long divorced from his wife, Valerie (Katharine Ross, who knows from Westerns), and barely has a relationship with his adult daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter). When he bumps into Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a cool, smart chick who’s about his kid’s age and makes goo-goo eyes at him, Lee’s first instinct is to become defensive about the preposterousness of it.
“Seventy,” Lee snarls when he finally goads her into asking his age, practically spitting out the addendum, “One!”
But they start to have a thing, and Lee decides he might as well go accept that award after all, especially if he can have a pretty thing on his arm. They drop some drugs beforehand to mellow out, stuff happens at the ceremony, and without going into it all, his phone starts to ring again.
There’s one other key piece of information: Lee has just learned he has a deadly form of cancer that is mostly going to put him six feet under before too long. He starts to experience dreams/flashbacks in which he is again the star of a Western, an existentialist jaunt in which old debts have piled up and a reckoning comes creeping.
It’s still stunning how a widebrim and six-shooter fit Elliott so well, less accoutrements than intrinsic parts of the man’s iconography.
Things go from there. Director Brett Haley, who previously worked with Elliott on “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” co-wrote the script with Marc Basch as a clear homage to the actor. It’s a look at a guy who’s been waiting his whole life for his fortune to change, and when it happens it’s at exactly the wrong time.
Sullen yet hopeful, with even a nugget or two of joy, “The Hero” isn’t a swan song to a type of actor whose day has passed, but a showcase for one very much in his prime.