The Hero (The Orchard, PG-13)

The Hero joins the ranks of recent releases that take seriously the concerns of persons outside the coveted 18-45 age range.

Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) is an aging actor, known for roles in Westerns, who’s now reduced to doing voiceovers for commercials. In the kind of good news/bad news buffeting that’s a reality of old age as well as of careers in the arts, on the same day he receives the news that he’s going to get a lifetime achievement award and that he has pancreatic cancer. Such is the set-up for Brett Haley’s The Hero, and while that summary may make it sound like a hopeless raft of clichés, it’s actually a pretty good film thanks to strong performances, beautiful cinematography (the Los Angeles coast has never looked better than it does through Rob Givens’ lens), and a screenplay willing explore what it means to suddenly become aware of your own mortality.

Like the on-screen cowboys he used to play, Lee is a man of few words who prefers living in his own head to sharing his thoughts with others. So it’s not surprising that he is at first reluctant to communicate the information about his diagnosis with his ex-wife (Katharine Ross, Elliott’s real-life wife) and estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter from Jessica Jones), while finding it easier to speak with comparative strangers about it. His character’s interiority also justifies Haley’s numerous fantasy sequences, which show him processing information and emotions through characters and situations from his acting career.

Sam Elliott is one of those actors who is always good but hasn’t received the acclaim he deserves, in part because he’s usually relegated to supporting roles (two of my personal favorite performances of his are Wade Garrett in Road House and his cameo as the pilot who hands George Clooney his 10 million miles card in Up in the Air). Laura Prepon (Alex Vause on Orange is the New Black) is also very good as Charlotte Dylan, a straight-talking, Edna St. Vincent Millay-loving woman who delivers a real character in place of what could have been a throwaway role as the love interest of a man old enough to be her father. Ritter is also impressive in a minor role, as is Ross (yes, that Katharine Ross).

The screenplay, by Haley and Marc Basch, is full of references to movie history, beginning with the name of Elliott’s character: “Lee” recalls Lee Marvin, “Hayden” Sterling Hayden, both actors who specialized in prototypical masculine power roles. Lee also watches old movies with his drug dealer/ex-acting buddy Jeremy Frost (Nick Offerman) and the appearance of Ross recalls her role as the love interest in a much earlier (and iconoclastic) Western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

The Hero joins the ranks of recent releases that take seriously the concerns of persons outside the coveted 18-45 age range, both as characters in the film and as audience members who buy their share of tickets.  Haley has a feel for this kind of film, as evidenced by his 2015 I’ll See You in My Dreams, which also featured a performance by Elliott. The Hero is not exactly the movie of the year, but it’s still well worth watching, particularly if you’re a Sam Elliot fan. | Sarah Boslaugh

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