'The Hero' Review: Sam Elliott Shines In An Otherwise Middling Drama

The Hero centers on an aging movie star who's best remembered for his performance in a beloved western forty years earlier. It's a vehicle written specifically for actor Sam Elliott, who, of course, has his own storied history in that genre and has embraced that vibe as a key part of his acting persona, even in films as divergent as Ghost Rider and The Big Lebowski. While The Hero doesn't offer any particularly insightful observations about what it means to get older in Hollywood, it's still a pleasure to watch Elliott – a perennial ensemble player since his made-for-TV movie heyday of the '80s and '90s – do terrific work as the clear lead of a film that lasers in on his sensibilities as a performer.

Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a 72-year-old actor whose glory days are behind him. He makes a living using his lustrous voice to record voiceovers for barbecue sauce commercials, but spends most of his days getting stoned with his drug dealer (Nick Offerman) and pining for a time when he had a better relationship with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter). But his dead end life is turned upside down when he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), an enigmatic woman in her 30s who isn't like everyone else: since she hasn't seen Lee's famous western (also called The Hero), she sees him as the man he is instead of an icon. The two begin a relationship, something happens that put Lee back in the national spotlight, and their relationship takes an unforeseen twist; this is a film of simple pleasures, so I won't go into further detail about story points in case you decide to seek it out for yourselves.

The most fascinating aspect of the movie is its depiction of hazy dream sequences, which are peppered throughout. In these moments, Lee is back on the set of The Hero, dressed in classic western regalia and replaying famous scenes. But he's also aware that he's on a set, and in the inquisitive way he searches through his trailer and the surrounding areas, it's almost like he's excavating his own memories. With a heightened color palette and a deliberate pacing that's even slower than the rest of the film's already-meandering drawl, these cinematic dreams are a cool stylistic flourish that spice up an otherwise straightforward drama.

Offerman has some nice comedic moments, and Prepon does a solid job keeping her character's true intentions close to the vest, but it's clear from the outset that this is Sam Elliott's movie, and it's a delight to see him so easily rise to the challenge of carrying the whole film on his back. He appears in nearly every frame, and it couldn't have been easy to grapple with a story that's so blatantly meta – especially when his character spends so much time failing, mired in guilt and doubt. Elliott successfully underplays nearly every emotion his character feels, resulting in a performance that's profoundly sad yet hopeful; when a half-smile creeps out under that iconic mustache, you get the sense that everything will somehow be okay.

Sadly, co-writer/director Brett Haley (I'll See You in My Dreams) seems content with dropping his star into a storytelling template so predictable you start to wonder what Elliott could do if he were given material that truly pushed him as an actor instead of a script that encourages him to lean in to his current persona. And it's not only the story that's full of cliches – the visuals are also a victim, returning over and over again to the rolling waves of the ocean as a shorthand stand-in for symbolic meaning.

Despite some cringeworthy moments – a love scene that goes on a bit too long, a drug-fueled acceptance speech at an awards show – the actor elevates the material and keeps the movie afloat, bringing a heft to something that, in lesser hands, might be so formulaic that it's unwatchable. Thankfully, Elliott's baritone voice and world-weary eyes go a long way to endearing an audience, no matter what he's saying. Even listening to him record barbecue sauce commercials can put a smile on your face.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10