In The Hero, Sam Elliot plays an aging Western star, Lee Hayden, at the end of his life. He hasn’t done substantial work in forty years, he’s on the outs with his ex-wife and daughter, he spends his days smoking weed with his friend, and he just found out his has incurable cancer. That may sound like a cliche set-up to an overly sentimental movie, but in director Matt Haley’s hands this film becomes something much more. The Hero is a compassionate, sweet film about making peace with death in order to enjoy life. Where lesser stories would zig, The Hero zags, and that makes all the difference.
Sam Elliot is an actor known for his booming voice and push-broom mustache. He most often plays supporting parts in movies, and especially so as he has aged. He brings a remarkable quiet to this film. Early in this film, another character calls him “sad,” and his sadness is one that has been with him for many years. He is resigned to it. It’s like he’s in a prison cell that only he can see. When the door begins to crack open, he cracks too, and his tears seem as true as any tears I’ve ever seen, on screen or in life.
This isn’t a desperate film. It is comfortable resolving story threads in ways they would resolve in real life. Just when you think the movie is going to take a wrong step and veer into a most banal territory, The Hero shifts back into the wisdom that makes it an exceptional film. This is Brett Haley’s third feature film. Each of his films deal with elderly women and men finding peace with life. The Hero is a confident film, and as a viewer, there’s no substitute for feeling like you’re in the hands of a filmmaker who is sure of her or himself.
Sam Elliot is helped by his extraordinary supporting cast. Nick Offerman is delightful as his pot-smoking friend, but he’s more than funny. You feel their friendship, that it’s something that has buoyed both of them over the years. Laura Prepon plays Lee’s love interest, and they treat their new relationship as something new. They’re appropriately uncomfortable with each other even while they have chemistry. Kristen Ritter is an actor that never seems to give anyone anything they don’t earn, and her character, Lee’s estranged daughter, Lucy, interacts with her disappointing father genuinely. Again, these performances are all helped by the writing, but they each never bring more or less than’s necessary for any moment.
Walking the line between compassionate and overly-sentimental is difficult. The Hero strides along it. It reaches a wise lesson about who to live in the face of death, how to want to make amends with those you love even though that is difficult, and how to always reach for something new and good even if the end is nearing. And it’s final moments, just prior to a kind of last second gag, is sublime. I suppose that’s appropriate for a movie about death. In any case, I’ll be thinking about that nearly-the-last shot for the rest of the year.
This review was originally published on January 26, 2017, during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. – Editor