NBFF 2017 Review: The Hero

One of the advantages of seeing smaller films touring around festivals is having a chance to see character actors in lead roles. The Hero provides the great Sam Elliot this chance and it’s a joy to watch. No stranger to cinema, Elliot has been a stable presence in many films and TV shows for over 40 years. Here’s a film that gets to play with his image, while also challenging the man to be more than just a mustachioed character actor with a deep and wonderful voice.

Elliot stars as Lee Hayden, a veteran actor who became a Western icon for his most famous cowboy role in a film called The Hero. Now it’s present day and Lee spends his days doing voiceover work when he can and smoking weed with a former co-star-turned-drug dealer (the always reliable Nick Offerman).

The film follows Lee for a couple key days in his life, where he is treated to good and bad news about his future. Being a man in his 70s, Lee receives some unfortunate news about where things may be headed, but he also has a chance to claim some more glory as well as form a new relationship with a much younger woman (Laura Prepon).

In other films, it would be easy to roll my eyes at that last part, but The Hero does a good job of working Prepon’s character, Charlotte, into the story. It’s not about this strange situation as much as it is about seeing two people find a connection with one another and have adult conversations about life. The film, as a whole, finds a way of turning many of its conversations into strong scenes that reflect who Lee’s character is and what it is to look back and consider one’s successes in life.

There is some familiarity here, as we are watching another story about an older man who is suddenly on a path of redemption, but everything plays out so naturally. While the life of an aging movie star is not inherently relatable, watching the man Elliot plays feels so right. It’s the details that really help this out.

We learn plenty about Lee. He has an ex-wife played by Elliot’s real-life wife Katharine Ross and an estranged daughter played by Krysten Ritter. It’s obvious Lee was never the best family man and that becomes clear without any real detail as to what really lead to a falling out. The Hero is beyond easy reasoning such as this, as it has a larger concern with showing us the Lee of today.

With Elliot going all out to inhabit this character, we get a great sense of this man. He’s one dealing with his own mortality and reflecting on the life he’s lived. We see constant visions of Lee, as he dreams about what a great final sendoff would be, were he to make a movie that would finally allow him to truly explore his talents as an actor with another iconic role. Some of this comes through in how Lee speaks to people. Much more of it comes through thanks to what Elliot can do with the small movements in his face.

Having such a thick mustache may allow some to cheat their way through a performance, letting the face whiskers do the work for them. Elliot doesn’t make it so simple. He uses his natural-grown accessory to his advantage, letting it help play out the emotions Lee has. One section of the film features Lee reading for a part in a film. We get to see that twice and the difference between those readings is both heartbreaking and a testament to the commitment Elliot had here.

Writer/director Brett Haley and co-writer Marc Basch are either the biggest Sam Elliot fans in the world or ones who have been dying to tap into the man’s full potential (regardless of age), as this is a great showcase for it. That said, they have so much more on their minds in terms of the cinematic value they get from their premise. Set in Los Angeles, the film is happy to provide nice imagery of the city and just enough of a perspective on what it means to be a celebrity.

The film thankfully never goes too far down the road when it comes to Lee “going viral” and is even able to make the inside baseball talk about the film industry fairly understandable for anyone. Fittingly, given the many shots of ocean waves and wonderful looks at open fields that Lee dreams about shooting one more film in, there is a poetic angle to The Hero both figuratively and literally. The work of Edna St. Vincent Millay ends up playing a role in the film, adding more to this story that’s already tackling depression, death and rejection.

Fortunately, the film is actually sunnier than that overall. While deliberately paced, there is a humorous streak that runs throughout the film. Whether it’s Lee’s bemused reactions to certain things or the camaraderie shared between he and Offerman’s character, the film is not content to just let you feel the drama. The Hero offers a well-rounded story, with a strong central performance and enough overall optimism to let you know it’s never too late for an old cowboy.

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for more of my coverage of the festival!


Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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