“My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!”
– Edna St. Vincent Millay
It was my privilege to see the sublime film The Hero at the 2017 Atlanta Film Festival.
Indulge me: I want you to conjure in your mind, dear reader, Sam Elliott vocalizing this review. Sounds right that way.
Sam Elliott has been around a long time and has never really had the defining killer role that he should have. He gets close in The Hero playing aging actor Lee Hayden who also never quite hit his stride. Lee was known for one role in one film (The Hero) as a Western gunslinger and then the typecasting that followed limited his career. He’s old and cranky and his fame has faded into obscurity when he gets bad news from his doctor and has to start facing the fact that his remaining days may rapidly be coming to a middle.
He spends those days with his weed dealer Jeremy watching Buster Keaton films, eating Chinese delivery, and blowing his brains out with spectacular green. They have homes in the hills above L.A. and honestly I can think of worse ways to burn an afternoon. The evenings come with beautifully shot sunsets over the hazy hills.
Nick Offerman as the easygoing hoodie clad purveyor of exotic herbs is disarmingly vulnerable and funny. Is there anything Offerman can’t do? He’s excelled at everything from Ron Swanson to Ignatius Reilly (You just switched to Ron Swanson’s voice in your head there but I forgive you, now back to Elliott’s bemused drawl, please).
“But sometimes there’s a man, sometimes, there’s a man. Aw. I lost my train of thought here. But… aw, hell. I’ve done introduced him enough.”
At this point the ex-film-cowboy’s tragic melodrama is interrupted by Charlotte (Laura Prepon), another customer of Jeremy’s who is fascinated by Lee when she stops by for some weed.
“…sad but common moments in life gives the story extraordinary emotional impact, making it personal.”
I need to take just a brief moment here to consider Laura Prepon. She’s got a rare something… yes she’s beautiful but also she has an inscrutable quality of intelligence and dark mischief in her smiling eyes that says “I’m about to f**k some s**t up for you and you’re going along with it, you’re going to love every minute of it, talk about it for the rest of your life, and miss me when I’m gone” and you know it’s all true. Think of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Melanie Griffith as Lulu in Something Wild. Michelle Pfeiffer as Diana in Into the Night. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. Laura Prepon has that devilish spark and you’d follow her into hell if she even casually suggested it. So, that.
She doesn’t ask Lee to follow her into hell, but she does take him to some unexpected places with some unexpected recreational pharmaceuticals. It is a remarkable and hilarious treat to see Elliott playing his standard “western gentleman” tripping balls on party drugs.
The surprising relationship that springs up between the two is fraught with uncertainty and generational confusion and comes for him at a time of explosive upheaval in his life. She brings him Edna St. Vincent Millay to help him steer in the uncharted waters.
One piece of the feature that feels underdeveloped is Lee’s troubled relationship with his daughter Lucy (played by the very talented Krysten Ritter. If you haven’t see Jessica Jones on Netflix, go do that). Lucy is angry with her father for being gone so much when she was growing up but that is not explored in any detail.
In place of a long screed (which I wrote, then deleted) addressing and defending the older man/younger woman question and trying to head off the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” protests I will say only that if you have issues with either of those tropes, don’t watch The Hero. It’s not for you. This is indie film where nothing is sacred or profane. Some people will like it, some won’t and that’s the right way. There are other stories in other films.
There’s no particularly new ground being covered here. The depth and intensity the actors bring to sad but common moments in life gives the story extraordinary emotional impact, making it personal.
Sam Elliott is pitch perfect in this film about facing mortality feeling unfinished. Scheduled to release in June 2017.
The Hero (2017) Directed by Brett Haley. Written By Marc Basch, Brett Haley. Starring Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman.
8 out of 10