Sam Elliot is the definition of laconic. As an actor, he is a man who feels deeply, but keeps those emotions in tight check, yet transmitting them to the audience with clarity and an authenticity that is riveting. His only flaw is that he makes it look almost too easy, until the moment when the voice cracks, the tear falls, and what we have before us is the perfect picture of a man whose life is in the throes of an existential crisis he never saw coming. As Lee Hayden, he has found the role of a lifetime, one that shows his depth, his ability to connect on an emotional level heretofore unseen, but always suspected.
Lee is an actor in the twilight of both his life and his career. With one great film to his credit, forty years ago, he now makes his living doing voiceovers extolling the virtues of barbeque sauce for an offscreen director unable to explain exactly what he needs from him. Hayden, obviously irritated but perfectly game, forges on. His spirits are not lifted by the call from his agent offering him not a script, but rather a lifetime achievement award bestowed upon him by an obscure group of fans dedicated to the western genre. Between that, and the visit to his ex-wife, Valerie (Katharine Ross), and then his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) we learn the personal alienation he has achieved, and that the only real connection he has to anyone on this planet is his pot dealer (Nick Offerman at his most charmingly insouciant), an ex-actor with a penchant for Buster Keaton movies. It’s while Lee is working through the afternoon munchies, and THE GENERAL, that he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), an enigmatic but uncannily direct woman who has dropped by for a transaction during which she tells Lee that he seems sad. When fate or chance bring them together again at a taco truck, a tentative flirtation ensues, followed by a life-altering evening at the awards ceremony.
Prepon is a perfect match for Elliot. With a cool gaze that sizes up the world without fear or favor, and a demeanor that brooks no dissembling. She is the channel for Lee’s return from the pot and liquor haze in which he has chosen to live, but she is not his lifeline. Far from it. This is not a story of conventional romance. As with his last film, I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, Brett Haley explores the relationships that don’t fit into the tidy little pigeonholes that make society comfortable, but that do have profound effects on the people involved. Lee and Charlotte are boon companions without the necessity of meeting each of the other’s needs, yet with a bond that neither of them can deny, even if they can’t quite figure out what it is. Similarly, the rapport between Lee and Valerie, one born of a long-shared history and mutual disappointment over love gone wrong has a sweetness rather than a hackneyed tension, even if the look Valerie gives Lee after a few minutes is a distinct, if gentle, signal that their conversation is over. Even the more typical situation between repentant father and resentful daughter has an unorthodox intricacy to it that surprises with its twists.
Haley balances reality with Lee’s dream sequences that are rife with hanged men and redacted tax returns, and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, a poetess beloved by Charlotte, whose works find resonance with Lee’s state of mind. The reveries subvert our pre-conceived notions of that word, and play off the harsh edges of reality, illuminating but not softening the blows, yet somehow providing surcease.
THE HERO engages at the conscious and the subliminal level, finding a connection with the audience that goes beyond words (hence the Keaton references), but also celebrating the power of the right words spoken at the right moment. Lyrical, caustic, and ferocious in its compassion, it is the stuff of epic poetry, and brilliant insight, the kind that changes everything by only changing perspective.