Sam Elliot may have found a role to make his mark.
Director: Brett Haley/2017
Sam Elliot is an American treasure. He is one of those rare actors where you always like him, even if you don’t like the film he is in. More often than not, however, you tend to like the films he is in as well. He’s one of those actors that doesn’t always bask in the limelight, but who is a steady presence in both smaller fare, as well as more popular pictures. He’s also a member of what I call the “good-ole boys”. Actors that have a country flair and ruggedness that seems to work, no matter how often they use it. Other members might include Jeff Bridges, Tommy Lee Jones, and lately a little Josh Brolin. With his deep voice, and steady demeanor, Sam Elliot has always been a larger than life presence whether appearing in favorites like Tombstone, The Big Lebowski, We Were Soldiers, or in smaller fare like Television’s Parks and Recreation.
In his latest film, Elliot plays Lee Hayden, an aging actor who meet as he is recording a voiceover for a BBQ Sauce commercial. This is a man who clearly does not love his current job as he is asked to repeatedly say the same line over and over for Lone Star BBQ Sauce. Lee is a man who is past his prime, is no longer getting roles, but who is being offered a Lifetime Achievement Award by a group celebrating his contributions to westerns. For Lee the award just confirms what his agent won’t come right out and say: his career is fading into the twilight. To make matters worse, he has just been told that he is an aggressive form of prostate cancer and just a short time to live.
Elliot’s performance coupled with the tension he has of trying to move forward while facing one’s own mortality is all this film needs to be considered a strong contender during awards season.
He is divorced from his wife Valerie (Katharine Ross-Elliot’s real-life wife) and estranged from his adult daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter). His main friend is a washed up actor named Jeremy Frost (Nick Offerman) who once appeared in a series with Lee Hayden that lasted just 13 episodes before it was cancelled. Now, he is the local L.A. drug dealer to people in the entertainment industry, smokin’ a joint while firing up a Buster Keaton film on the DVD player. It is through Jeremy that Lee meets Charlotte Dylan (Laura Prepon), a stand-up comedian who has stopped by for some pot from Jeremy. Despite their 30-plus age difference, Charlotte is drawn to Lee and the sadness she sees in his eyes and agrees to accompany him to this Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony.
Lee creates a moment that goes viral in his speech to the award ceremony and soon he finds himself being sought after for new film opportunities, all the while hiding the truth that he is going to die, unless a “miracle procedure” buys him a little more time. How that brings him to confront his regrets, both professionally and personally, is what we see play out as this aging cowboy actor comes to terms with his own mortality and the desire to ride into the sunset of his own life on his terms.
Sam Elliot has finally found a role where he can fully embody a character and make it seem like a natural extension of himself in such a way that it fills each scene and frame with his larger-than-life presence. It is also one of the most subdued and controlled performances he has ever given. He shows many layers to his character that reflect back to us the typical persona we think of when we hear the name Sam Elliot, and even helps us recall our favorite past roles he has had, while at the same time giving a context to all of the roles that have come before.
If Lee Hayden is an actor known for the type of roles Sam Elliot has played, then what we are watching on screen is not Lee Hayden, but Sam Elliot wrestling with the same notions of not being ready to hang your hat up, still looking to work, grow, perform, entertain, and be challenged to do his best, even if others have written him off because of his age, or the notion of being past your prime. Elliot is not past his prime. From the performance in The Hero, he is just coming into it.
The story is solid, and the cast all deliver strong performances, that elevate any issues that exist in director and co-screenwriter Brett Haley’s story. Largely, the story is tight, with Laura Prepon proving to have good chemistry with Sam Elliot as they pursue this unlikely romance. As a stand-up comedienne, her character’s comedy club routine is the only sour note of the story as it seems to dislodge the narrative arc she and Lee are on, and the conflict it creates seems to be so easily resolved in a film that seems to celebrate the need for struggle. Here, it just seems manufactured.
Had there been a little bit more character development to provide a context to the actions and words she takes in her stand-up act, it would have helped elevate the complicated romance they are pursuing. Instead, it comes off as a juvenile stereotype of what a stand-up act looks like, and one that it is only thrown into the story to serve as a point of conflict that will allow the film to have a reason for a temporary dramatic tension in need of resolving. It is one of the only missteps of this film, but it is a big one as this story didn’t need this sort of false drama. Elliot’s performance coupled with the tension he has of trying to move forward while facing one’s own mortality is all this film needs to be considered a strong contender during awards season. Fortunately, this hiccup is not a major part of the story in the big scheme of things, but it is enough to disrupt the momentum it had.
Krysten Ritter and Katharine Ross are both strong in their small but effective roles as the family in Lee’s life. For all of his past glory on screen, this is one area where Lee is no hero. While audiences tend to elevate actors for their past roles, and we certainly watch various people see Lee that way calling him their hero, the ones closest to these so-called heroes see a much different person standing before them than the public does. For his daughter Lucy, Lee was just the Dad who was always gone.
In a powerful moment, Krysten Ritter is able to convey the burdens that children carry into adulthood as they try to make sense of why those they love seem to go away. We also witness the blame such children heap upon themselves when they have no answer for that person’s absence. This is the legacy Lee has left in Lucy’s mind in his role as a father…the one who walked away. The tension I felt as I watched Sam Elliot embody this fictional character was palpable as I see Ritter’s Lucy sharing this heartache, knowing that she has no idea that her father Lee may be walking away from her again permanently, in light of his diagnosis, even as he longs to strive to set things right knowing that he might never get the chance.
Everyone is longing for a shot at redemption. We all want to lift our lives from the place we are to the idealistic place we all longed to be at when we were just starting out. The Hero shows one’s man struggle to get to his place, knowing his time is short. In the process, we are reaffirmed that one moment of our life can in fact go viral and as a result plant the seeds that will lead to another chance to be The Hero in the eyes of others…especially in the eyes of those we love the most.