How many chances do we get to experience a rebirth? When death finally does stare you down, do you look in the mirror and ask: Am I ready to go or do I have unfinished business? Brett Haley’s soulful ode to legacy-The Hero-places one of the most iconic voices of film center stage at long last.
Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) has a lot of unfinished business. An aging actor known for one legendary performance, Hayden yearns for the days where he was walking across the desert with a cowboy hat on, dispensing justice. These days, all Lee dispenses is the smoke from the weed he smokes with former co-star and friend, Jeremy (Nick Offerman), and advertising words for barbecue sauce through a microphone in a recording studio.
What Lee wants to do is get one last role, or anything with substance. When he is given a fatal diagnosis, Lee attempts to reconnect with his daughter (Krysten Ritter, making a lot out of a little), but finds a new wave of energy when he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon, the beauty from Orange Is The New Black). In a way, Charlotte puts the flame back in Lee’s pilot light, and the film rides a comfortable wave as Lee confronts his mortality, his legacy, and what he will leave behind.
Haley also wrote the script, and doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel with this feature, instead creating an easy moving film that rolls along at a slow pace, but like its star, isn’t in a hurry to get to the end.
It’s easy to figure out why the role was written for Elliott, who shines brightly as a 71 year old man counting his chips at the end of a long road of experiences. Elliott has been in 98 films to date, but none of those projects gave him the space to work with like Haley’s film does. Hayden and Elliott have a few things in common, and their differences aren’t distant enough to where the actor can’t tap into that valve. He makes you feel every single one of Lee’s emotions, and does so without much dialogue.
When Hayden takes Charlotte to an awards ceremony where he is receiving a lifetime achievement award, his speech is unexpectedly moving, while being funny at the same time. The speech also winks deftly at the film industry itself, how it shapes and breaks down its biggest stars and “heroes”.
I was moved, because for as much acclaim as his legendary voice and look has given him, Elliott still doesn’t get the credit he deserves for being an actor with depth and gravitas. Even when the film approaches a slow juncture, Elliott lathers the screen with a layer of coolness so it doesn’t lose any weight or appeal.
The speech sparks a newfound popularity for Lee, and some new roles come his way. But with his time running out, will he be able to make peace with himself and others around him before he goes? The Hero gently touches on a lot of mortality questions that confront us every single birthday you have over the age of 30. When the end does come, will we be satisfied with our work here? Or will we always need more time?
Up until he meets Charlotte, Lee is content to smoke weed, earn paychecks, and dream about revisiting the legendary role (also called The Hero) one more time in a possible sequel. Then, she ignites something in him, a need to be better, but will he take advantage of the new fire or just burn out?
Elliott and Prepon reach a good level of chemistry, and Haley’s script wisely sprinkles some humor over their age difference, so the audience doesn’t think about it too much. Prepon has beauty to spare, but she also incorporates an edge to match up more equally with Elliott’s reverence. Offerman and Elliott fit easily into the glove of work colleagues and friends who have experienced the same tragedies, personally and professionally. Their scenes have a nimble grace to them, and you leave wanting more of their marijuana coated/Chinese salad eating expeditions.
You should always leave a movie wanting to see more of the characters, but not wanting more from the story. Every filmmaker’s intention should be to create lived in people that you want to follow around, but to surround them with a story you can enjoy. Haley gives you just enough of Hayden’s story to hook you, and then he lets Elliott’s greatness go to work. I admired the humor that undercut the more dramatic tones of the film, and loved that the ending didn’t carry a cute bow.
Hayden’s story isn’t complete, and that is the intention. You’ll leave the theater wondering if cinema’s cowboy made it or not, but you’ll be talking about how good Elliott was in a role he has deserved for quite some time. The 72 year old actor can light up any scene with his voice, stature, and persona, but The Hero gives him a true chance to dig deep, and create an iconic performance worth cherishing.
The Hero is a beautifully soulful tale that doesn’t move too quick, instead deciding to stop and acknowledge, even celebrate, the grace of old age and it’s never too late to find a second wind.