It takes a lot for a movie to make me cry, and even more for a film to make me tear up some time after I’m done watching it. Honestly, that’s not what I expected from a relatively simple drama called “The Hero”. While the film’s story might not be the most intense, engaging, or creative the weight and quality of one performance alone lifts this movie well above its potential for mediocrity creating an experience with genuine heart and emotion that tugs at you not because it tries to, but because the emotion and story are just too real to ignore.
“The Hero” follows a past-his-prime western film star named Lee Hayden, played by Sam Elliott, who spends his days looking for his next acting job and smoking pot with his former co-star Jeremy, played by Nick Offerman. Lee discovers he has cancer and decides to keep it from his family, including his ex-wife (played by Elliott’s real life wife Katherine Ross) and his estranged daughter, played by Krysten Ritter. Lee also gets involved with a much younger woman named Charlotte, played by Laura Prepon, who he invites to a special award ceremony honoring Lee’s legacy in westerns. After his award speech goes viral Lee finds opportunities to re-spark his acting career, which forces him to come to grips with his cancer diagnosis and his broken family life head on.
“The Hero” isn’t much to write home about in terms of uniqueness. We’ve see stories like this before, a washed up actor trying for one last role and to rekindle relationships with his family members. However there’s just something more human and relatable with “The Hero”. The film is smooth, well-paced, and surprisingly well controlled although the interpersonal relationships tend to be more summarized probably to keep it within its 1.5 hour run time. But all in all “The Hero” is surprisingly deep without being too subtle or too over the top and while it has its more stale moments it’s easy to become invested in Lee’s story. That brings me to by far the best aspect of this film and that’s the lead actor.
Often typecast for his western look and his “golden” voice Sam Elliott fit’s the role of Lee both literally and figuratively. In fact I’d say that this character was written for Elliott specifically who seems to truly understand, probably from his own personal experience, the struggles and frustrations Lee feels as the story progresses. Elliott turns in a truly incredible performance and one I think should be considered for the Academy Awards even if the film itself barely misses being Best Picture material in my book. It’s not hard to believe Lee’s struggle as Elliott brings a casual, smooth, and invested performance to the screen overshadowing everyone else involved with this work. The highlight scene is an audition where Lee had nailed the material earlier but breaks down as he comes to realize everything in his life has fallen apart. You know that moment I mentioned in the first paragraph that made me tear up? yeah that’s this scene. His daughter doesn’t want him, he’s dying, and the audition that could have saved his career is ruined as these emotions take him over for really the first time. It’s probably one of the most truly human and powerful scenes you’ll see all year in a movie. I wanted to see Lee happy. Despite his flaws this moment, this truly mesmerizing moment, made me feel for him. I felt sympathy and heartache and found myself relating to Lee as my own perspective on life flooded in as I compared myself to the character. THAT right there ladies and gentleman is what a performance should do. THAT is what movies are made for right there!
Sam Elliott is surrounded by equally great talent to support him in his journey as Lee. Nick Offerman brings his unique brand of off-color dry comedy to the table as the closest thing to a best friend Lee has. Laura Prepon reminds us why she was so beloved in her youth and is still among the most underrated actresses of the day as comedian and love interest Charlotte who becomes a grounding point for Lee as he tries to find meaning in the final years of his life. While she’s not on screen long Krysten Ritter is also well cast as Lee’s daughter Lucy. As always, Ritter injects attitude into her role and perfectly plays a damages daughter trying to better herself without her father’s faults holding her back. While none of these roles overshadow Elliott and many come off as pretty generic in grand scheme of things, they do serve as great characters that tie Lee’s separate story arcs together nicely and give us context into the mind and life of a man just trying to continue living when he feels the world has left him behind.
The one thing I can say about “The Hero” that goes against the film’s quality is that without the performances of its leads this would be a pretty generic story if there ever was one. There’s not a lot of creativity in the storytelling and while there is potential, and even attempts at some pretty great imagery and symbolism the filmmakers don’t really do anything with it opting instead for a more straight forward narrative that plays out well, but again only because of the capable actors behind the characters. This is a great example of how mediocrity can become great if the casting it right and sometimes that’s what it takes to bring out the true potential in a script and screenplay. Otherwise clichéd and bland material is made so much more relatable, believable and heartfelt by committed performances and an understanding of the struggles of these characters that can’t be faked. It has to be real and for the most part it’s a very humanizing and humbling story everyone can relate to in some way.
“The Hero” could have easily been a generic drama, but thankfully it’s so much more. Its simple narrative is elevated by great performances from a capable and devoted cast with Sam Elliott at the helm turning in one of the most genuine, human, and Oscar worthy performances of 2017. His performance alone brings this movie to a new level without going too over the top and I’d recommend “The Hero” just to watch the emotionally shattering audition scene alone. As I said at the start, it’s tough for a film to make me cry. Only a select few have ever done it. But it’s even rarer for a film to make me emotional hours after I see it as I begin to feel for the man I watched on the screen and the struggle he deals with and how that relates to me personally as a human being. Overall “The Hero” might not be the best film of 2017, but it’s one that packs enough human elements and a big enough emotional punch to warrant repeat viewings. You just might find yourself just as emotional as the man we watch struggle through his 71st year of life on this earth and in the end everyone learns an important lesson, it’s not to late to find purpose and peace in one’s existence even after we’ve hit our prime.