Here’s a powerful exploration of a dissolute older man’s waning fortunes and the shock that brings him out of his apathy, writes TOBY WOLLASTON
Have you ever laboured your way through the retelling of someone else’s dream? Boring to many, gold to others perhaps, but as The Hero tells us, ‘Movies are other peoples dreams,’ and your level of appreciation for this film may well rest on the amount you empathise with its retelling of another man’s story. Its quiet nature implores us to be patient and listen to Lee Hayden’s story.
Lee (Sam Elliott) is a washed-up actor, aged 71 and well past the twilight of his career. A star of multiple westerns in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he now resides in his Californian bungalow and quietly smokes weed with the drug dealer next door while wallowing in his self-pity at the broken relationships with his daughter and ex-wife. It’s not until he receives news of a potentially terminal cancer that he’s woken from his apathetic slumber, and seeks to right a few wrongs.
By chance, he strikes up a romantic relationship with Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a woman almost half his age. The ensuing sex scene will, no doubt, challenge some viewers’ preconceived ideas about mixed age relationships – its irksome nature being a social construct that’s come about through desperate old men and gold diggers taking reciprocal advantage of each other. But here, theirs is a tender and honest relationship reluctantly accepted by Lee, who is well aware of how it looks.
The thematic similarities to Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler are worth mentioning. Only, this is a gentler version… minus the lycra, razor blades and strippers. But both films have at their core an exploration into mortality, the coming to terms with a failing body, and the desire to mend broken relationships. The cinematic treatments of both films are very personal tales from directors who’ve elected to dial back the filmic flourishes to allow breathing space for their star to deliver a stellar performance.
Actor Sam Elliott’s familiar persona parallels his onscreen character, his smoky voice (which makes Johnny Cash sound like a chipmunk) resonating more powerfully than his face. It’s a masterstroke of casting. Despite the film being very much a vehicle for Elliott’s mesmerising performance, it is still worth mentioning director Brett Haley’s intentionally subtle hand. He is a director who knows when to observe and listen, making The Hero a notable example of directorial restraint.
The Hero is perhaps too earnest in its middle stanza but rights itself with a powerful ending.
Few films finish this well. If you’ve seen Nocturnal Animals and cried inwardly at Amy Adam’s tour de force of acting in the film’s final scene, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Elliott delivers his final few lines with devastating effect, lines that echo the film’s opening act and speak volumes about how far his character has developed. Lee’s story is a dream worth watching.
- The Hero opens in NZ on Boxing Day.