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.
Throw in an ex-wife (played by Katharine Ross, Elliott’s real-life wife), a semi-estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) and an unexpected new romance with a stand-up comic (Laura Prepon), and you have all the elements of a late-life crisis movie, and much of The Hero doesn’t veer too far from familiar terrain. Lee has to consider the damage he’s caused his family and make amends as he wonders is he has any reason to keep pushing forward. Some big dramatic moments don’t connect and a mid-film sequence in which Lee’s chemically influenced acceptance speech inexplicably goes viral in particular plays like a contrivance. And while it would be nice to report that Elliott and Prepon develop the kind chemistry that makes sense of their May/December romance, they don’t. Instead we get a few lines about how Prepon’s character has always been into older men and some recitations of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry.
Yet for all that doesn’t quite work in The Hero, enough does to make it worth a look. Haley is too comfortable with clichéd set-ups, but he doesn’t have much use for clichéd resolutions, refusing to give Lee an easy way out of his problems. And then there’s Elliott, who we don’t get to see in leading roles and who makes the most of the opportunity here, finding the vulnerability and fear beneath the surface of his cowboy persona. It’s rare that a character actor gets this kind of showcase, and Elliott confirms that he’s more than capable of handling center stage. Hopefully he’ll have more chances in the years to come. (And someone write this man a great Western already.)