An aging Western actor with a golden voice, in the twilight of his life, discovers inspiration from an unlikely source in director Brett Haley’s warm and whimsical romantic drama, The Hero.
It has been said that growing old is an unpleasant experience and former Western star Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) is deep in its collective throes. Diagnosed with cancer and reduced to using his tremendous voice performing voice-overs, Lee spends most of his days getting high, either by himself or with his neighbor, friend, and dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman).
Forty years have passed since Lee’s quintessential performance and in his mind, he feels like the rest of his journey has been downhill. After receiving a dire medical diagnosis, Lee begins the process of reconnecting with his estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter) and also begins a May-December affair with a sexy younger comedian and pot smoker, Charlotte (Laura Prepon), who overcomes his initial anxiety over their age difference that she can be his impassioned equal.
Haley’s follow-up to his 2015 film, I’ll See You In My Dreams, continues his exploration of senior citizens who are forced to face their own mortality. Playing a character his age, Elliott emerges from his usual character roles to leading man status and he gives a tender and reflective performance that feels closer to the life we believe that Elliott has lived.
While it is routine to see older male actors cast with younger female love interests, in this film the relationship dynamic between Elliott/Prepon works. Thirty years his junior, Elliott’s Lee is apprehensive and inquisitive over Charlotte’s interest. Despite their significant age gap, at their core, both are lost souls who each have something that the other desperately need.
Their bond is tested after Charlotte channels her experience with Lee into her comedy act, severely hurting his feelings. After several days apart, she apologizes to her emotionally-wounded beau, who lets down his wall and confides his scary truth to her which serves to bring them together.
Coming off her turn in Orange is the New Black, Prepon successfully provides much-needed character depth and support in a role that easily could have minimized her. Her Charlotte evolves from a younger woman with a crush on an older man to someone who could share his life journey in a meaningful way.
The screenplay, co-written by Haley and Marc Basch, tackles the un-comfortability that Lee has with the ladies in his life, Charlotte, and Lucy but also the potential resumption of his career following a career-making speech during a lifetime achievement award. Sprinkled throughout the story are flashbacks to Lee’s most recognizable role and it feels like nothing has come close to matching that high for him. Awash in drugs and alcohol to numb the pain, he finally finds someone to shoulder some of his emotional pain.
Moderately paced, sentimental and earnest, The Hero is the story of a flawed man who desperately seeks redemption for his past failures. While his road is somewhat rocky and his situation complicated, Elliott anchors his wistful lead performance in warm layers of emotional truth that makes us constantly root for him to succeed. One of the best performances of his career, Elliott’s performance is passionately heroic and a shining example that you can indeed teach an old dog new tricks.