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“The Hero” (2017)

A film by Brett Haley
with Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter.

“The Hero” finds Elliott in a deeply contemplative role, discussing his own career and giving an emotional meditation on stardom.

As a perennial cowboy figure, it’s been many years since Elliott’s iconic roles in “Lifeguard” and “Tombstone”; for younger generations, his iconic accent might be more familiar like the voiceovers in “The Big Lebowski”. That voice leads the way on “The Hero,” which begins with his character Lee Hayden rolling his eyes as he tries to shoot a nice commercial for Lone Star BBQ. It’s the perfect setting for a movie with a main story: Here is a talented man the world has forgotten.

Haley’s script wastes no time in taking chances. Within minutes, Lee got a call from his agent about some elusive performance award — and then his doctor diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer. Retreating into denial (and a haze of weed smoke), Lee hides the news of his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) and everyone else around him. Instead, he hides his bad luck in the lie that he plans to make another movie.

Much of “The Hero” is spent hanging out with Lee and exploring the limitations of his world. The actor spends much of his time smoking pot with an old friend who is now a drug dealer (Nick Offerman, making a mocking monotony) and randomly encounters Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a mysterious younger woman with whom he develops a curious romantic bond. On a whim, he brings Charlotte as his companion for the life-giving ceremony, which leads to an unexpected, drug-fueled night out as the couple’s chemistry begins to develop.

Played well, this dynamic predictably leads to complications, with Lee questioning Charlotte’s much younger interest in him, and the revelation of her own acting career, making her prospects even bleaker. It’s an unsophisticated dynamic that remains watchable: Elliott’s tough exterior inevitably gives way to despair, and the actor is so adept at conveying these subtleties that his expressions amount to a ticking time bomb. Set against the stunning backdrop of the California coast, “The Hero” complements Elliott’s performance with a backdrop that reflects his contemplative mood.

The character’s name, Lee Hayden, is an amalgamation of Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden – both of which epitomize the male arrogance of a different era and the dwindling opportunities for these faces over the years. But while the character stems from a long tradition of struggling artists, “The Hero” lays out his cards from the start and never quite manages to build them up. Lee remains haunted by his mistakes, unable to rejuvenate his ties to his family or reignite his career, and even the fleeting possibility of a second chance sends him down another depressing path of self-pity. Haley’s script doesn’t delve into this conundrum: the most Lee can offer is that he’s “a sad old rogue,” while Charlotte comforts him by saying that his one famous role “is as close to immortality as possible. “

The film’s strongest moments involve imaginary footage that takes place within the confines of Lee’s head; It’s here that Haley moves away from the story’s more obvious arguments in favor of an expressionist approach to conveying Lee’s haunting relationship to missed opportunities as he contemplates his death. However, these same scenes are compelling enough to highlight the simpler events of the main drama. With Elliott front and center for every scene, “The Hero” displays the kind of acting display that its fictional star can never achieve.