Is Sam Elliott a national treasure? Are we comfortable as a society giving him that honor, or is that something we collectively decide posthumously? I grew up watching the off-brand Sam Elliott Westerns such as "The Shadow Riders," "The Hi-Lo Country," and "Conagher." Sure, it might be stuff like "Tombstone" and "Road House" that made him a household name, but Elliott was always best playing in the smaller sandboxes. "The Hero" is one of those smaller sandboxes, but it gives Elliott a giant canvas on which to paint.
Sam Elliott plays Lee Hayden, an actor famous for Westerns that came out back in the day. He still does voice-over work and the odd acting gig here and there, but the golden age of his career is behind him. After a cancer diagnosis that doesn't leave him much time, Lee attempts to figure out something to do—something quick and lasting that will leave him a legacy that doesn't contain the words "has-been."
Director and co-writer Brett Haley has so much empathy for Lee that the camera just lingers on Elliott's heavily lined face and soaks in his majestic and honeyed voice. Haley loves Elliott as much as he loves Lee, so he never attempts to take away from the performance with showy camera moves or stylistic flourishes.
There's a beautiful scene in which Lee is smoking a joint and watching Buster Keaton's "The General." Just from the look in his eyes, we can tell he's wondering whether he'll leave behind something quite so lasting and iconic. A lesser film would have left that scene on the cutting room floor, unaware that it even transpired.
The old cowboy doesn't like buying his pot from dispensaries; instead he goes over to an old friend's house for the weed. Played by Ron Swanson himself, Lee's friend, Jeremy, is a judgment-free zone. He respects Lee so much that he just loves having him over, even though he doesn't fashion himself a drug dealer. An entire film of Sam Elliott and Nick Offerman having philosophical discussions while getting stoned would be much appreciated, so can someone please get on that?
Lee (combined with the "Western Hero" history Elliott brings to the role) feels like a man out of time, a relic of a golden age of film in which the women were all starlets, the men had class and Hollywood was in the business of making magic. Watching Lee driving around L.A. is an anachronism made flesh, like the spirit of the West stepped off the movie screen and, instead of hopping on his trusted steed, slid behind the wheel of a Prius and hummed off into the sunset.
"The Hero" tells a story we've seen before, but in a way that gives it new life. By finding the perfect actor to play Lee (Scott Glenn, Keith Carradine and maybe Eastwood are the only others who could even attempt it), Haley has given Elliott a gift. It's a film that feels so intensely personal and specific to the man that Elliott might have found his legacy, along with Lee. Either way, they both have something to be proud of.
Dir. Brett Haley
Sisters Movie House