Overview: After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, an aging former Western star tries to reconcile with his daughter, starts dating a much younger woman, earns a Lifetime Achievement Award, and auditions for his first major film in decades. The Orchard; 2017; Not Rated; 93 minutes.
D’You Got a Good Sarsaparilla: According to Director Brett Haley, who was generous enough to offer a Q&A following his film’s closing of the 41st Cleveland International Film Festival, The Hero, as a concept and a film, started with Sam Elliott, an actor for whom the filmmaker (and really everybody with any film taste and pop culture common sense) holds great respect and appreciation. There have been a number of these films lately, prestige pictures centered on performances from iconic actors in roles that spin their iconicism into a creative meta-text. The Wrestler, Crazy Heart, JCVD, and Birdman all come to mind. But where those films work as contorted or vague metaphors for their stars’ actual experience, Lee Hayden, the main character in The Hero, as Haley is quick to point out, is nothing like the performer who plays him. Where Hayden is out of substantial work, divorced, and alienated from his daughter, Elliott continues to be a working icon with a lasting marriage and healthy family. The Hero, as Haley explains, just provides the actor the deserved opportunity to lead a serious film.
What Are You, A Fuckin’ Weatherman Now: And lead the film, Elliott does. His performance here doesn’t just reach the standard of excellence established by his busy career, it proves new boundaries of ability for the seventy-two year old actor. Particularly in the film’s funnest and its most emotional stretch—when Elliott accepts his lifetime achievement award after consuming molly given to him by his new romantic interest, Charlotte (Laura Prepon), and when he auditions for a film that requires him to address his failure to his daughter head-on at the wrong moment—Elliott acts the hell out of this movie. For their part, Haley and his screenwriting collaborator, Marc Basch, know how to build Elliott room and provide him with tools to work. Much of the story, which deals primarily with Hayden’s muted reconciliation with his likely death, is told in silences, through what is not said, by the expressions that mark those things unsaid, and the eventual timing of those confessions.
I’ll Get All the Sleep I Need When I’m Dead: But even with all that, there’s a sense that, for the pairing of subject matter and star, the film doesn’t go far enough. In the days after his diagnosis, Hayden spends most of his time with Charlotte, but also visits his drug dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman), his ex-wife Valarie (played by Elliott’s real-life wife Katharine Ross), and his daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter). Neither of the first two are given an opportunity to actively and observably influence Hayden’s internalized struggle, and the latter provides a deflated climactic scene which lacks impact in spite of both performers doing their best.
The film has interludes of dream sequences that see Hayden revisiting the set of his star turn in a movie forty years old. These surreal sequences are lensed with hypnotic light and silent, liquid pacing by Rob Givens’ cinematography. Aside from the previously mentioned scenes, these were my favorite parts of the film, marking the few moments where supplemental filmmaking architecture helped elevate an A+ performance. At just 93 minutes, there was plenty of space left to build such a display and lend some backup riffs to Elliott’s masterful solo.
Overall: While Haley’s affection for his star makes space for a top tier performance, it often seems to limit the development of the rest of the film. And while that deflates what should be some of its more poignant moments, The Hero is still worth seeing just to measure just how good Sam Elliott is at this acting thing.
Featured Image: The Orchard