Produced by Houston King,
Sam Bisbee, Erik Rommesmo
Written by Marc Basch, Brett Haley
Directed by Brett Haley
Starring Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon,
Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman,
Katharine Ross, Doug Cox, Max Gail
Excellent character actors are a gift to any film. Their ability to seamlessly slip into a role and take on that particular persona allows for a richer story than your average cast member. But what of the actor who is so identified with that role that he is typecast for an entire career?
This is what happened to Sam Elliott, the mustachioed silver-haired lead of Brett Haley’s The Hero.
Audiences know him as the perennially deep-voiced cowboy in everything from The Big Lebowski to Thank You For Smoking.
This series of history of single-focus casting led to Haley writing a feature vehicle for the actor where he shines as the man behind the trope.
The Hero looks at the life of Lee Hayden (Elliott), an actor whose glory days of starring in Westerns are behind him, replaced by collecting checks for barbecue sauce voiceover work. He spends his empty days smoking heavily with his weed dealer (Nick Offerman). When a health scare comes his way, he is left to address the way he has been spending his years, and how he wants to be remembered for what he has left.
Sam Elliott is currently enjoying a wave of newfound and diverse popularity with roles in several projects, but his work in this film will solidify the idea that Hollywood has been missing out in not casting him in more creative lead roles sooner. Though the character of Lee Hayden shares some career trajectory similarities (and should, as it was written after Haley become friends with Elliott), there is nothing that yells “cowboy” in the way Elliot displays his range of talent. He draws out the anger from lost relationships, cheerful aloofness in spur-of-the-moment druggy euphoria, and remains empathetic even at his darker moments.
He is especially a joy to watch as the audience is “in” on the parallel nature of aspects of the story. It makes for a unique movie that could only be led by someone who had been typecast in the industry for a significant amount of time but has also obtained a fair amount of notoriety for playing that role to a T. It is the intimate entwined nature of the casting and storytelling that gives the movie more depth than it would have on its own.
Without the additional layers added by Elliott’s own career, the movie would be significantly less enjoyable. There are few real surprises in the movie; no twists and turns to take away from his personal journey. Even the supporting cast plays typical roles, which is a shame as the casting was very apt.
Offerman was more believable running lines before an audition than as the snarky drug dealer, but Laura Prepon was excellent as the beautiful younger love interest who addresses their age gap from several angles. Unfortunately, as the distant and bitter daughter Krysten Ritter was not used to her full potential. But because we already have a relationship with the lead it almost does not matter as much that this time it is everyone else fulfilling a trope. Almost.
There is a particular scene where Lee Hayden accepts a lifetime achievement award and turns it into an opportunity to acknowledge who really drives fame and longevity in Hollywood. In fact, at several points the movie shares a lesson, but never in a way that feels too preachy.
There are inevitably more roles that will utilize Elliott’s cowboy drawl and stern gaze. But The Hero proves that he is not only destined for greater things; he is also absolutely deserving of the opportunity.