There are few actors better suited for Westerns than Sam Elliott. Even putting aside a mustache that most men seemingly lost the ability to grow at the end of the Taft administration, Elliott has the weary eyes of a trail-hardened frontiersman and a deep, resonant voice seemingly designed for campfire stories.
So it’s odd to discover, looking at Elliott’s filmography, that it’s not littered with classic Westerns. Elliott had a small role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and a more substantial part in Tombstone, but his most memorable appearances have tended to be as characters who embody elements of the Old West despite never having been a part of it, be it The Stranger in The Big Lebowski, his mentor role in Road House, the T-Rex cattleman in The Good Dinosaur, or his work as a late-run bad guy on Justified. He might still have a great Western in his future — filmmakers looking for ideas, take note — but he’s equally effective acting as a man out of time.
Brett Haley, who directs The Hero and co-wrote the script with Marc Basch, gets that. And for his second film he set out to tailor a film to Elliott’s strengths, and maybe push him a bit further than usual. Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a septuagenarian cowboy star whose steadiest employment comes from voiceover commercial work trading on his on-screen past. As the film opens, we hear him espousing the virtues of Lone Star barbecue sauce (“the perfect partner for your chicken”) before we see him — and the barely contained frustration on his face as he goes through take after take.
It’s no wonder Lee spends most of his days getting high with Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a genial actor-turned-drug dealer with whom he has a long history. With nothing better to do, why not kick back, chill out, and listen to upbeat reggae music while watching Buster Keaton movies?
But a couple of things happen to kick Lee off the couch: He’s approached to receive a lifetime achievement award by the Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild, and he’s diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a tough diagnosis to beat even for someone who’s not entirely sure he has that much to live for.