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Sam Elliott is Beyond Magnificent in Mournful, Poetic THE HERO (Sundance Review)

Sam Elliott is Beyond Magnificent in Mournful, Poetic THE HERO (Sundance Review)

Picture Sam Elliott playing a grizzled old actor, iconic for a genre left largely behind by Hollywood, trying to understand his neglected relationships after learning which disease is going to kill him. Whatever perfection you’re imagining, Elliott somehow surpasses it.

Following in the thematic footsteps of I’ll See You In My Dreams, co-writer/director Brett Haley’s The Hero is a marriage of incomparable veteran talent and a character worthy of it. Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a 72-year-old acting icon whose heyday was 40 years ago. Now doing voice-over work for BBQ sauce commercials, he’s bummed that movie studios never call his agent, but seems just as content to bum around his weed dealer/friend Jeremy’s (Nick Offerman) house watching Buster Keaton flicks. He’s divorced, effectively estranged from his daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), and staring down the barrel of a lifetime achievement award from a small cowboy movie fan club.

Oh, and pancreatic cancer’s 5% survival rate.

When he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon) through Jeremy, she becomes a much-needed companion and sounding board for understanding the bulk of his life and a death that’s suddenly around the corner. As you can probably guess, this is a contemplative, conversational film–like a Richard Linklater movie with a slight tilt toward fantasy. At night, when he can sleep, Lee dreams that he’s starring in a movie in the shadow of a man hanged from a tree. Yet its surreal imagery isn’t full-on psychedelia, even (thankfully) when Lee does Molly or eats mushrooms. Like a cowboy on a tennis court, these visuals are meant to push reality just an inch to the left. To jostle symbols out of their familiar context.

While the film is an exploration of a tired (so tired) actor’s relationships, it’s neither slow nor wholly ephemeral. In fact, it’s propelled largely by plot, like changes in Lee’s circumstances and small tastes of what he thinks he wants. Given nuanced life by Prepon, Charlotte is a breath of fresh air and a point of confusion. Their May-December romance is lovely and strange, and The Hero wisely confronts its awkwardness head-on, turning something most movies avoid altogether into an emotional line in the sand. Far from manic or pixie, Charlotte has a smart, casual outlook on life and a great capacity for empathy. Without her, Lee might have wallowed, alone, leaving emergency services with the burden of telling his family that cancer killed him.

One of The Hero‘s most potent concepts is how a terminal diagnosis, especially at an older age, can open the door to a soft kind of suicide. Lee is faced, in raw terms, with the choice to fight like hell for extra life measured in months or to give up and let go. Beyond the typical, creeping mortality of old age, he also knows what’s going to kill him. Abstract death made concrete.

The other big idea swirling around comes when a video of Lee, stoned out of his mind at an awards banquet, goes viral. His celebrity status returns, and we get a sense of his reluctance for the trappings of fame that come beyond doing the work. He stays insular, hanging out with his friends instead of front-facing his new public, as if celebrity is something that must happen far away from the person who’s famous. That status, and the person who earns it, is shown as a commodity here, good solely for how others can use it.

The first half of the film is largely shot (by DP Rob Givens) in ways to push us off balance, crafting an air of uncertainty that mirrors the big questions and lack of answers Lee faces. We get angled shots from behind his head as he’s speaking and open frames that make Lee look small in his own home. As he searches for clarity, the cinematography follows suit to smart effect.

The Hero is a singular vision that, even when it seems like it’s overreaching, finds a way to stick the landing–including a worrisome gag with on-hold music that turns into one of the biggest, most jarring laughs.

This story of one man’s regrets and triumphs offers the full spectrum: it’s engrossing and funny and sad. It seems trite to bring up next year’s awards season while at Sundance, but Elliott’s worthiness is undeniable. This performance is masterful in its subtlety, wit and anguished realism, proving that it’s absolutely bonkers that Elliott hasn’t even been nominated for an Oscar before. Why, America, have we so neglected everyone’s golden-sandpaper-throated grandpa?

Early on in The Hero, Lee describes movies as “other people’s dreams.” This particular movie allows us a profound, sweet glimpse into this man’s dreams, and in a world dominated by explosively loud cinema, this quietly poetic trip speaks volumes.

5 out of 5 Platinum Cookie Burritos

5-burritos1

Images: Park Pictures

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