“You can’t outrun destiny, amigo”
Death is the great equalizer and one true certainty in life. That doesn’t mean we’re prepared for its sudden or prolonged arrival, though. If anything it forces us to take stock of achievements and mistakes, knowing that the time we believed we had to fix the latter was about to disappear. As we deal with an unavoidable internal existential crisis, we also seek to reignite external relationships long since disintegrated. This is the journey Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) takes in Brett Haley‘s The Hero. He’s a man made obsolete who finds himself standing face to face with the cliff’s edge of eternity. A public catharsis may render him relevant again professionally—age no match for popularity—but progress can’t be made until his personal life’s cracks are mended.
Repairing those wounds will prove much harder than unwittingly finding himself a viral internet sensation at the tender age of seventy-one. We don’t know how long it’s been since he last acted in a film—the fact he’s remembered as a western icon could mean it’s been quite some time—but his frustration doing voiceover work for commercials is obvious. All the sacrifices he made have brought him to a place of complete isolation besides the calls of an agent with no new offers and the company of a long-time friend/marijuana dealer in Jeremy (Nick Offerman). Lee is estranged from his ex-wife (Katharine Ross‘ Valerie) and daughter (Krysten Ritter‘s Lucy) so the news of his having cancer hits without a real outlet in order to seek necessary comfort.
Being that he’s an actor of the self-absorbed yet remorseful sort, his mortality hits hard. Rather than tell his family the truth, he speaks about a new film—a dream he has about whether or not his legacy is meaningless considering how he used it as an excuse to ruin what should have mattered most. Lee hopes to find an answer in these nightly sojourns with guns drawn and hanging men, an answer to whether treatment is worth the brief extension remission might provide. Has he lived his life to the fullest to therefore accept his fate and fade away? Has he squandered so much that death as an escape becomes a welcome wish? Or is there still reason to write one more chapter no matter its brevity?
Haley and co-writer Marc Basch could have gone the easy route of empathetic and melodramatic tears by opening Lee up to the family he closed himself off from years earlier, but they instead introduce a new, incongruous player to shake things up and force him to acknowledge the complexity of his situation. She is Charlotte Dylan (Laura Prepon), a much younger woman who shares Jeremy as a common acquaintance. There’s an honest fascination on her part as well as Lee’s, one that brings them together on a lark with the potential for authentic feelings of love. They are complicated souls searching for something neither can quite reach and through the other they’re able to lock away personal demons for a clean slate devoid of baggage until the morning.
It’s an intriguing match mixed with drug-use to provide a high of artificial and natural means stripping away inhibition, fear, and anxiety. Their pairing leads to Lee’s renaissance in the public’s eye due to this freedom to live outside of his age, responsibilities, and damnation. He can reclaim the sense of confidence that made him a star, sharing his seasoned wisdom about hard work, determination, and luck with those who weren’t there to call bullshit and remind him of the collateral damage he ignored then and now to achieve success. The role he had taken on as “Lee the senior citizen” wallowing in self-pity and regret fades away if only for one evening to reveal the charitable, compassionate, and fun soul beneath. The time for rebirth is now.
That’s the realization we all hope to encounter to pivot ourselves back on track towards evolution. Some of us aren’t so lucky—a relative term when dealing with cancer of course—and simply pass away without warning while still caught in the midst of resigned stagnancy. If this horrendous diagnosis is what Lee needs to climb out of despair, at least some good can possibly come out of it. He’s still the man that disappointed almost every person he ever encountered, so mistakes will continue being made. But having his back against a wall with the clock ticking down means he won’t be able to put off his guilt. It’s time to break free from his self-imposed prison and show the ones he loves it wasn’t their fault.
The film is therefore full of emotion and drama as Lee deals with the present by reconciling past and future. It’s a wonderfully poignant showcase for Elliott’s talents, an uncommon role for an actor his age to sink his teeth in and not be relegated to the background. But Haley’s film is also quite funny with an infectious delight courtesy of the reclaimed youthful vigor when Lee and Charlotte are together. He gives her the respect and dignity she cannot find in men her age while she provides a mirror with which to begin catalyzing his second chance. Prepon is the perfect foil with as much independence and self-worth as heartfelt desire to earn his love without pity. Theirs is an intelligent pairing that doesn’t rely on cliché.
For the most part The Hero doesn’t rely on it even in a broader sense, it’s trajectory less A to B to C progression than slice of ambiguous and unexpected life. Haley isn’t afraid to let feelings get hurt when they should or set characters up to inflict pain for selfish yet non-malicious means. Everyone involved needs to put his/her ego in check to understand the bigger picture of what’s happening because not doing so means they will render themselves into exactly what Lee is trying to escape. Does he deserve forgiveness? Only to the extent that everyone does. Lee might die alone, die surrounded with love, or survive—it doesn’t matter as long as his character remains honest. Credit Haley and Elliott for providing that honesty throughout.
courtesy of The Orchard