What does it mean to be an icon? How much must one achieve to be worthy of such a title? And when faced with one's own dawning mortality, is that all really worth anything, in the end? These are the kinds of questions posited by Brett Haley's latest film, The Hero.
Our story follows Sam Elliott as Lee Hayden, an aging actor best known as the mysterious Western gunslinger from which the film bears its name. In the thirty-odd years since The Hero's release, Lee has had to make a living scraping together work from failed TV shows and voice-overs for ads, and his personal life is no better, as he is separated from his wife, Valarie (Katharine Ross), and has an extremely rocky relationship with his daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter). The only person he seems able to rely on is his old television co-star, Jeremy Frost (Nick Offerman), who helps him with the occasional gig and mostly supplies him with enough weed to pass the time. But none of these people would Lee admit his greatest secret to: the fact that he's quickly dying of pancreatic cancer.
Of course, that all changes when he's introduced to one of Jeremy's friends, the enchanting Charlotte Dylan (Laura Prepon), who quickly takes a liking to the old man. Together, the two strike a passionate yet volatile romance, reigniting Lee's wilder side. After his Molly-fueled acceptance speech goes viral, the old film hero starts to feel new life breathed into his career - and perhaps even himself.
The Hero is certainly an interesting beast to behold; a power-house of performances framed within some top-notch cinematography. Sam Elliott obviously steals the show, but that's basically a given, since Haley admits that he wrote the story from the ground-up for him. Offerman is no shirk, either, being the perfect comedic foil while also bringing a lot of heart to the bromance. His role could have easily been some Seth Rogen-esque washed-up-actor-turned-stoner, but what we get instead is a man of true passions who just never quite got there, but now rides out his days on early success and a little bit of drug sales on the side. He forms an emotional center without steering the film one way or the other, and it's to be commended.
Laura Prepon is also amazing as the romantic interest, Charlotte, as she's asked to handle a lot. Trying to be a sort of mature take on the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" at the start, but then unfolding into a much more grounded and vulnerable character, all in the span of 90 minutes - it's truly a testament to Laura's stellar talent. She holds her own with Sam in every scene, which is quite the feat, all things considered.
It's also just a beautiful movie to watch - elegantly shot and arranged. There's lots of subtle visual and audio cues that are used to great effect to help with the feelings of disorientation and fear, really wrapping viewers into all the swirling emotions as Lee comes to grips with his disease and how to approach telling the other members of his life about it. The use of strange angles and jarring cuts plays to a deft understanding of the medium, as the movie equates the warping effects of drugs and alcohol to those of the dawning realization of mortality. The question of "What's real and what isn't?" is central to the film's narrative, further ingrained by the running motif of Lee's cowboy dreams: at first, they seem to me premonitions of a new movie project, but as the movie goes on, they start to hint at something at once darker, and perhaps more comforting, as well.
All that said... I can't call this a flawless film, though its problems aren't even in a traditional sense. Without going into spoiler-territory, I felt that its ending came a bit too abruptly - a strange sentiment in a world of overly-bloated mega-movies. Still, I feel like The Hero could have used another 15 minutes or more of runtime to better explore some of its subjects. With such a streamlined structure, several characters feel woefully under-used: for instance, Krysten Ritter does her best as Lee's estranged daughter, Lucy, but she's only given a few scant speaking scenes, so I was left wanting more exploration of their relationship. I get that the movie wants to leave things open, and I get that it's trying to be "true to life" in the way that some things just don't get nice resolutions - but, come on, dude. I'm going to the movies for artifice: I need something to hang my hat on. And the way those pieces are left open, there wasn't even enough time given to them to make them the subject of debate - so really, why leave us like this?
Still, for the 90-some-odd minutes I was in the theater watching it, I was completely enthralled with The Hero. I loved its style, I loved the people I was spending time with, I wanted to see them get through this shitty time in their lives. They made me laugh, I felt their pain, and I shared in their joy. The Hero is not a film without its blemishes and scars - but really, are any of we so different?