By Joe Hammerschmidt
A rather lesser-known partnership in Hollywood has made waves, that between a young director just starting to find his way, and a screen vet with years of experience and an instantly recognizable voice to match. Seeing the first pairing had warranted success, even if few people were aware, it seemed an obvious no-brainer to take a second go. “The Hero” reunites auteur Brett Haley with the venerable Sam Elliot, after pleasing many with 2015’s indie ensemble favorite “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” As a clever take on reestablishing one’s romantic self at a certain age, Haley structured Dreams with a given purpose of just inspiring generations to find that new self-evolution, in both life and love. Therefore, I could personally consider “The Hero” much of a spiritual sequel, in that it covers nearly similar territory.
Haley goes for the emotional jugular in idolizing a man who some say has gone well past his prime, but is still looking for what’s next. Sam Elliot is that man, both in reality and through his character, Lee Hayden. Once a go-to Western icon in the 70s/80s, Hayden has reached that average slump that comes with old age. Desperate for decent roles, he is limited to meager voice-over gigs and a friendship with once co-star/now weed dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman). With the fragility of a debilitating cancer diagnosis weighing down, Lee strives to build on his past legacy by searching harder for that last great role, with the help of one of those lifetime achievement awards that either spell the end of a career or the next step; his family, by seeking to reconnect with ex-wife (Katherine Ross, Elliot’s real-life spouse) and daughter (Krysten Ritter); and then himself, with the aid of a new woman in her life, startup stand-up comic Charlotte (Laura Prepon), 30 years younger.
For every ounce of gravitas each actor carries on their shoulders with this work, it only adds weight to the human condition, with Elliot’s role in the center the figurative barbecue sauce that coats the meat of the film (a direct parody of his work with the Beef Council ads). Instantly, his notable voice fills the room like air to lungs; his perception towards life and work immediately takes control, with Haley at the driver’s seat. While not quite POV, it’s as close to a first-person view as traditional third-person storytelling can reach, in that much of the focus stays square on Hayward. If there were one fault with the approach taken, it’s Haley’s certain impatience towards his supporting characters. Not satisfied enough to allow ample time for each of them, especially Ritter portraying the estranged kid Lee had always wanted to share his life with. You feel enough of for Lee’s struggle, yet it’s almost too self-centered.
Equally so, yet more welcome, would be the grandiose scale of the film itself; contrasted to all the dramatic moments wherein Lee grasps head-on with his immortality is his pattern of desire to escape back into his most vibrant days, back when he was known as “The Hero” of a pivotal Western adventure of the same name from the early 80s, much like Elliot’s own journey as an actor, taking to mostly Wild West adventures much of his early years. Cutting back and forth between a sorrowful present, and an almost perfect past where even then Lee felt his strata being rudely challenged, that is almost enough to convey the deep symbolism fame lands on top the laps of the privileged, which Haley excels at.
However, the plot in general will show signs of imbalance, as if there wasn’t enough evidence to the contrary outside of Lee’s own ambition. Given there were multiple layers to this actor’s aging identity, focusing on just the primary wasn’t entirely substantial. Yet, given Elliot’s track record over nearly a 50-year career, this role, much like the singing cowboy-type he portrayed in “Dreams” who was already facing expiration, is reward enough in exposing a side of a respected talent one had thought disappeared. Here, it’s magnified further to expose the core of one’s ego when faced with solidifying their contribution to society. Through “The Hero”, the director has found a reliable muse, one to inspire his later works as his own share of the Hollywood pie only expands. And the leading man, now 72, whose voice and mustache will remain symbolic long after his departure from this earth, and certainly well past the poignant final scene which is easily open to interpretation, has only further built his legend. His is a role which may stand as the highest mark of his car, and as one of the finest I’ve seen of any actor so far this year; much like this film, which if time plays its factor card appropriately may stand as one of the finest all year. (B+)
“The Hero” opens today at Pacific Place, Uptown, Dine-In Seattle 10; rated R or drug use, language and some sexual content; 93 minutes