(Image: The A.V. Club)

(Image: The A.V. Club)

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5th Chicago Critics Film Festival official selection


The soon-to-be 73-year-old Sam Elliott is a goddamn national treasure and no one can convince me otherwise.  Most folks go straight for the man’s imposing baritone voice or his sweet ‘stache.  I go for his swagger and resolve.  What makes Sam’s signature timbre memorable is the determination behind it, not its sound.  The purpose makes the presence.  Written especially for him by writer-director Brett Haley, The Hero is a sublime epistle to the silver screen specter cast by Sam Elliott.

Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a weathered Hollywood star north of 70 with a dynamite head of hair and a golden voice.  He has the nervous ticks of a man who’s itching to press down on the throttle of something more substantial than the product voiceovers and the perfunctory existence he finds himself between smoked joints with his former co-star Jeremy Frost (Nick Offerman).  Distant from his ex-wife Valarie (the long-lost Katharine Ross) and daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), Lee is still capable of turning on the charm or the intensity at the drop of a hat.  The man still has it, he just needs another chance and the right focus.

Fortune frowns and fortune smiles in different ways for Lee.  He is named for a lifetime achievement award and catches the romantic eye of an alluring stand-up comic named Charlotte Dylan (Laura Prepon).  Lee’s drug-and-cocktail-fueled acceptance speech goes viral and new acting offers and opportunities start coming in.  None of that good luck can pull him out of the black hole created by a surprise pancreatic cancer diagnosis that hits him like a death sentence.  

The lessened layers of The Hero constantly keep this film from being anywhere near a preening glamour project.  Lee’s recurring dreams of an unrealized western film where he’s the star again allow Brett Haley to shift filmmaking styles for clever little artistic asides.  Additionally, Haley deftly composes touching relationship ties for each ensemble member.  The maturely honest romance with Charlotte, the jovial kinship with Jeremy, and invisible roots of disappointment from Lucy and Valarie all punctuate some trait of the lead character.  Nevertheless, the periphery of The Hero steps back and genuflects to allow Sam Elliott all the breadth necessary to achieve his peaks.

In my review of Brett Haley’s 2015 film I’ll See You in My Dreams, I begged for more Sam Elliott romancing Blythe Danner.  The Hero granted my wish and then some.  Sam Elliott composes ever fiber of his range and stature into this role.  We have always witnessed and loved how easy he saunters.  To watch him unravel, tighten, and then unravel again with wrought emotionality within this character facing mortality and legacy is transcending and heavily powerful.  It is an immediately Oscar-worthy performance and arguably the most accomplished one of his proud career.

LESSON #1: OLDER GUYS ARE AWESOME-- Let Laura Prepon’s Charlotte tell you.  Guys like Lee Hayden (or Sam Elliott himself for that matter) are men’s men.  They are rarities.  Gruff yet sensual, men like Lee are deliberate and forceful with their actions and passions, even if those moments arrive through a slower delivery akin to a seasoned veteran of life and love.

LESSON #2: ACHIEVING A LEGACY-- All it took was one iconic role for Lee Hayden to be considered a western film legend.  When achieved, fame has a level of immortality and it feels good when you’re remembered and revered for something you are proud of, as Lee is of his signature role.  There is a level of comfort in that, but he wants that “one more role” to cement his professional legacy.

LESSON #3: DESERVING A LEGACY-- The flipside of Lesson #2 is Lee’s life off-camera and whether or not his legacy is deserved.  Sure, Lee Hayden etched his place in movie history, but the real man walks around as a failure of a husband and father and he knows it.  The regrets of his self-centered behavior eat at Lee and his limited time pushes him to seek contrition.  He would trade his professional legacy for one with his family in a heartbeat.