From a mysterious stranger in The Big Lebowski to an airplane pilot in Up in the Air to Virgil Earp in Tombstone, Sam Elliott almost always leaves us wanting more. More has arrived. And it's just enough.
Directed by Brett Haley and starring Elliott, The Hero opened the Florida Film Festival in April and is now returning to Maitland's Enzian Theater for a regular run. Elliott plays Lee Hayden, an aging actor whose best film work is mostly forgotten. He spends his days contemplating past glory, smoking pot and begging his agent for work that doesn't involve barking barbecue sauce.
"I did one film that I'm proud of," Lee tells a friend. "That was 40 years ago."
Yet he's still remembered by a small but loyal legion of Western enthusiasts who worship that iconic cowboy role from a 1970s film appropriately titled The Hero. (The movie-within-a-movie theme is prominent, though Lee is not based on Elliott.) So when those fans honor him with a lifetime-achievement award at the same time as he receives dire health news, Lee arrives at his final crossroads.
Haley wrote the part for Elliott after working with the actor in I'll See You in My Dreams. Having not seen all of Elliott's performances over his 50-year career, I can't say definitively that this is his best. But it sure feels like it. Known mostly for supporting roles, he has, of course, played the lead previously, but perhaps not in such a resonant way and not in a film of this caliber. I would encourage the Academy to remember the 72-year-old veteran with a nomination come Oscar time.
We've seen this premise countless times: a character confronts his own mortality while struggling to put his life into perspective. And that's likely why the movie received some lukewarm responses from festival audiences. But while the premise may be tired, everything else seems fresh. Even a May-December romance is handled well, as is the ambiguous ending. And the surprising surreal elements – such as dreamlike interludes and metaphorical insertions – counterbalance the story's predictability. There's nothing particularly revelatory here, but if you relax and let the film wash over you, you'll learn a little about life.
The supporting cast is solid. Laura Prepon (Orange Is the New Black), as the May half of the aforementioned romance, is effective. Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones) as Lee's daughter and Katharine Ross (Elliott's real-life wife) as Lee's ex-wife are also nice additions. But Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) is most impressive as Jeremy, Lee's best friend, marijuana supplier and former co-star. We've heard a lot recently about the dearth of strong female and minority roles in film, but equally rare are honest, meaningful depictions of intergenerational friendships, and the one between Lee and Jeremy is the film's nicest surprise.
"Give me a chance to write another chapter," Lee asks of his daughter, but the request might as well be coming from Elliott. Request granted.