Iconic stars don’t die, they simply fade away until we only remember their defining roles. That certainly seems to be the case for forgotten western actor Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott), largely out of work and out of contact with his family. Except death is all too real for him, opening up a spiral of confusion and aching sadness in The Hero.

Director Brett Haley begins proceedings with Elliott’s famous drawl delivering the tagline for a BBQ sauce commercial. It’s about the only work Lee gets anymore, his acting days long behind him. His life might be too, a fact brought painfully home with the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. It doesn’t help that the only other thing on his horizon is a lifetime achievement award from a western appreciation society that serves to hammer home how far in the past his best days were.

The Hero is about mortality, but it’s also about immortality too. Lee has both, and reconciling that takes some doing. He lives alone in a large house overlooking LA, trapped in old memories. His ex-wife (played by Elliott’s real wife Katharine Ross) has moved on long ago, and his daughter (Krysten Ritter) wants little to do with him. All he has left is Nick Offerman’s one-time actor, long-time friend, and drug dealer Jeremy. They smoke pot, order Chinese and watch old movies together.

It’s here he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a much younger stand-up comedian who gives him some impetus, acting as the catalyst to make him face up to his problems. It’s a problematic role, their relationship coming a little too close to wish-fulfilment, but she does what is needed to move Lee towards vital self-realisation.

As much as his own life might be drawing to a close, his role in a highly regarded western, also called The Hero, keeps him living on. That’s why a room of people want to give him a lifetime achievement award. As Charlotte tells him while they’re getting high in the limo over, it’s the closest to immortality a human can get. The very fact it was four decades back supports her point.

Through all of this, Elliott is utterly captivating. A melancholy air surrounds him, his usually controlled facial expressions creasing to let the pain flow out. His deep, comforting voice hints at new-found vulnerability as he realises there may now be a countdown running on his life. The other performances around are overshadowed by Elliott, partly because no one else really has the space to develop, but his is such a consuming role it draws all attention in.

Haley could have made a good western himself, using dream sequences in which Lee is making, or perhaps remaking a western to hint at his state of mind. Shot in glaring sunshine and golden hour light, landscapes stretch out as far as the camera can see. Out of the dreams, the hinting can become too on the nose, especially when reading lines from a new blockbuster. The situation is so reminiscent of the relationship between Lee and his daughter it brings tears to his eyes. It’s not too often Haley overplays his hand though.

At one stage, after Jeremy refuses to listen to Lee’s dream on the grounds they should be personal, Lee informs him movies are other people’s dreams. If that’s true of The Hero, it’s a sad dream, full of longing and regret with only a hint of redemption. It also lingers long after the end.

Director: Brett Haley
Writers: Marc Basch, Brett Haley
Stars: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman
Runtime: 93 mins
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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