It's fitting that you hear the voice first. Even if the name Sam Elliott somehow doesn't ring a bell, you definitely know that gravelly baritone, the same one that's graced everything from Dodge Ram commercials to Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski's stoner escapades. When we meet up with him in The Hero, the man with the world's greatest living mustache is in a sound booth, recording an TV spot for a BBQ sauce: "The per-fect pardner for your chick-en." An unseen director keeps asking for one more take; Elliott's character, a former Western movie star named Lee Hayden who's firmly into his twilight years, keeps saying it again and again. He occasionally emphasizes a different syllable here and there. But Lee is stuck in a loop, frustratingly repeating the ad's tagline ad infinitum. Welcome to an actor's existential nightmare. I can't go on. I must go on. The per-fect pardner for your chick-en.
By the time that scene shows up a second time in Brett Haley's tender, touching drama, you realize that certain folks can eventually turn the lamest of phrases into either a cry for help or a declaration of pure, unfettered joy. And more importantly, it reminds you that it's easy to take a talent like Elliott for granted, until someone hands him the sort of role that lets this stoic pillar of hypermasculinity play the scales. You may walk into this modest little indie character study feeling like this seventysomething sex symbol is the ultimate oh-it's-that-guy from decades of supporting roles and TV guest appearances. You will almost assuredly leave The Hero knowing that he is a bona fide national treasure.
As for Lee Hayden, he's simply content to take a few voiceover gigs to pay the rent, spend his days getting high with his pot-dealer buddy (Nick Offerman) and gently coast on his former glory days. He used to be a real-deal horse opera icon – not unlike Elliott, who's played lifeguards and lean, mean gangsters but is probably best known for sporting Stetsons on screen – and an organization named the Western Appreciation and Preservation Guild wants to give him a lifetime achievement award. Then some biopsy results come back, along with bad news. Hayden doesn't tell anyone – not his friend, not his agent, not his ex-wife (Elliott's real-life spouse Katharine Ross), not his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter). He doesn't even mention it to Charlotte (Laura Prepon), the young, budding stand-up comic who starts producing sparks with the elderly gent before they've even exchanged a word.
There's more life on the horizon for Lee, naturally, including a May-December romance, an unlikely second chance at A-list fame in the everything-goes-viral age, some attempts to repair a legacy of regrets and familial fuck-ups and a few genuinely cringeworthy moments of humiliation. But it's death, which keeps rearing its ugly head as a hanging man in Hayden's Western-flavored dreams, that haunts both our hero and The Hero – the sense that, no matter how many shots of the lapping ocean Haley drops in for lyrical seasoning, the character's mortality is constantly tapping him on the weathered shoulder. The writer-director did something similar with his last film, I'll See You in My Dreams (2015), in which Blythe Danner's widow and her elderly friends grapple with autumnal-year anxiety even during the movie's lighter moments (a major character is set up to figure prominently, only to suddenly shuffle off this mortal coil).
But what separated that indie from the dozens of other films that revolve around AARP-friendly casts is that it allowed actors like Danner and Elliott, who showed up as a romantic interest, to play their age without getting too codger-cutesy or sentimental-sappy. (Old people ... they say the darnedest things!) And while Haley and his co-writer Marc Basch throw in some predictably maudlin moments and/or borderline cliché story beats – may we please retire the geriatric-gone-wild-after-ingesting-narcotics trope? – The Hero is less concerned with easy crowd-pleasing than mounting a showcase for a first-rate character actor. Elliott is usually called on to simply add insta-gravitas via that lower-register croak, channel Zen-unflappable cool or be the living embodiment of male virility. But he can also be foolish, sorrowful, funny, petty and, even with that legendary mustache, can temporarily resemble the world's sexiest sad-eyed turtle in a certain light.
The point being, the man contains multitudes that are never usually tapped. That changes now. If nothing else, The Hero is a chance for someone who, after a long career in which he's never hurt for work, finally gets to show you everything he's capable of in one fell swoop. It's not perfect, but it is a gift to Sam Elliott – and to us. You may have thought that, with that cowboy-statesman profile, the man had came right off of Mount Rushmore. But watch him turn a single unsure, sizing-up stare at Prepon's flirty youngster into a symphony and you'll realize why the man should be considered a pantheon-worthy screen performer. He's the perfect partner for your cinemagoing. He's a legend. He's a great actor, period. Time to start paying more attention to that last part.