The Hero: Aging film cowboy searches for redemption

90 minutes of lanky, grizzled and drawling.

The Hero

3 out of 5 stars

R. Directed by Brett Haley.

Starring Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Nick Offerman, Krysten Ritter and Katharine Ross.

Opens June 30.

click to enlarge Sam Elliott as Lee Hayden in The Hero. - Orchard Films
Orchard Films
Sam Elliott as Lee Hayden in The Hero.
Sam Elliott’s distinctive voice coming from that craggy face can sound like rocks rolling around inside a barrel, then sliding in a slurry out of a cement mixer. Gravelly, yet rich, deep, full and resonant, like a canyon talking. Some have said that if a towering saguaro cactus could speak, its voice would be his. One of the most famous uses of this voice outside his movies is that of the National Livestock and Meat Board spokesman reminding us, “Beef...it’s what’s for dinner.”

But in his new role as an aging western film star — typecasting at its best and worst — in The Hero (written and directed by Brett Haley), perhaps the more appropriate Macho-Meat advertisement would be the classic Wendy’s ad asking “Where’s the beef?”

It's a somewhat clever bit of meta-twist recapitulation of Elliott’s own career (Lifeguard, Tombstone, voiceovers in The Big Lebowski) that the movie opens with film-cowboy Lee Hayden (think combo of Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden — get it?) reduced to an exasperated session in a radio recording studio. The sonorous voice is still there as he tapes take after take after take on just one line, “Lone Star BBQ sauce...the perfect pardner for your chicken.”

Please ship me a case; you had me at “Lone Star.”

Even after 96 minutes of watching the aging star (“Lee Hayden,” not Sam Elliott) channel the gruff, laconic cowboy personas of Lee Marvin, Sterling Hayden, plus Robert Mitchum and James Coburn, all while wrestling with the infirmities and indignities of old age, the question still remains, Where. Is. The. Beef?

What purports to be an existential film about the cowboy’s search for purpose and identity — something beyond the one iconic movie he made forty years ago (meta-titled The Hero too) — instead drifts and dwindles into a rather tepid exploration of a once-hunk who has become an always-drunk. Or stoned by pot and assorted hallucinogens. For sure, aging is not easy. But Woody Allen had it right: “Old age is not so bad when you consider the alternative.”

And it's that alternative in the form of a medical diagnosis that now confronts him squarely, so attention must be paid. He makes the choice not to seek treatment, thus time is of the essence, so he goes into overdrive to make amends for his reprehensible behavior over the past decades. In movies, amends come quickly and easily.

click to enlarge Nick Offerman and Sam Elliott in The Hero. - Orchard Films
Orchard Films
Nick Offerman and Sam Elliott in The Hero.
It’s hard to elicit much sympathy for this Hollywood cowboy, living in the past through an extensive DVD collection, desperate to find meaningful work and rediscover his identity, reconnect with a family so easily jettisoned decades ago, all while trying for one final role to cement his legacy. But much of his day is spent in a fog, literally. Then his former co-star, now his drug dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman) introduces Lee to Charlotte (Laura Prepon), another customer searching for life's purpose through pot, pills and potent potables. It's what's for dinner.

Charlotte is a 30-something woman. A woman who talks like this — “It went viral, dude! TMZ. Jezebel. Trending on Twitter. Oh My God!” A woman who is a stand-up comic. A woman who says she likes old men, though she jokes that their testicles hang like golf balls in tube socks. Hilarity ensues.

click to enlarge Sam Elliott and Laura Prepon in The Hero. - Orchard Films
Orchard Films
Sam Elliott and Laura Prepon in The Hero.
At first it seems that this film might be a touching, tender look at the inevitable descent of our bodies and minds over time. Something contemplative and melancholic for sure, but still determined not to go gently into that good night. Things look hopeful when Charlotte gives Lee a book of Edna St. Vincent Millay poems, then reads aloud from her "Dirge Without Music": Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave/Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind/Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave/I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

For sure it's a poem not without sorrow and pity, and for sure it could be a guide for the journey Lee is on, his effort to write one more chapter, as he puts it. But the sentiment of the poem and apparent intention of this film get lost in the haze of weed and a fanciful fuck.

Blame the director. Blame the writer. They are the same person. 

Do not blame Sam Elliott, who with his nuanced voice and textured, septuagenarian face, plays what he was given. But the script sags as it relies on formula and cliché with no significant insight into the man, no real penetration of him or his past, his flaws or his strengths. And there’s absolutely nothing beyond the surface portrayal of ex-wife Valerie (the wasted Katharine Ross, Elliott's real-life wife) and estranged daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter).

As for this tumbling-into-bed-after-wild-party-evening romantic attraction between Sam and Charlotte, it’s just further evidence that movies sprinkle fairy powder (read: molly) over everything, and we are to believe the unbelievable.

click to enlarge Laura Prepon and Sam Elliott in The Hero. - Orchard Films
Orchard Films
Laura Prepon and Sam Elliott in The Hero.
Again, show me the beef.

I didn’t expect this film necessarily to reference Simone de Beauvoir’s pioneering, seminal book in the early 1970s,The Coming of Age. But it’s too bad our cowboy hadn’t read that on his way to hard-body fame and glory in preparation for loss of same. She wrote about “society’s secret shame,” the stigma of being old, the struggle to recognize a self that has been replaced by a “loathsome stranger.” And how to accommodate that aging, how to find our legacy, how to leave our own individual mark on the world.

That’s what real heroes do.

But I’ll still take that case — make it two — of Lone Star BBQ Sauce. I want a pardner for my chicken.


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Ben Wiley

%{[ data-embed-type="image" data-embed-id="59a99bae38ab46e8230492c5" data-embed-element="span" data-embed-size="640w" contenteditable="false" ]}%Ben Wiley is a retired professor of FILM and LITERATURE at St. Petersburg College. He also was on staff in the Study Abroad Office at University of South Florida as statewide...
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