“The Hero” begins with Sam Elliott’s character, a veteran actor, reading a voice-over about barbecue sauce, and that’s when it hit me: Sam Elliott’s voice is barbecue sauce. Pour it on any movie — and oh, that voice does pour, in thick, velvety dollops — and it tastes better.
Not that “The Hero” would taste terrible without him, but it might have felt generic; this is the small-scale story of a Man Looking Back On His Choices that you’ve probably seen before.
Lee Hayden (Elliott) is known for his work in iconic movie Westerns, but life has taken a few unexpected turns. He’s divorced (his ex is played by Katharine Ross, Elliott’s real-life wife), estranged from his daughter (Krysten Ritter), and spends his days smoking weed with a pal (Nick Offerman). A cancer diagnosis changes his life, as does a relationship with Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a stand-up comedian who’s much younger than Lee.
The movie isn’t particularly interested in its supporting characters, particularly Charlotte, whose complexities are mostly hinted at. Instead, it plants its gaze on Lee, and on Elliott, who takes “The Hero” and makes something quietly moving.
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The burnished darkness of the voice is at the forefront, but what’s lovely in this performance is often Elliott’s silences. Writer/director Brett Haley lets the actor take his time, and so we watch Elliott thoughtfully listening, being changed by what he hears, finding poetry in quiet gaze.
“Movies are other people’s dreams,” Lee says at one point; this one, it seems, was Haley’s dream of showcasing Elliott as the leading man he so rarely has been allowed to be. You might wish that the movie surrounding him was more memorable, but it doesn’t matter; that barbecue sauce — and the actor possessing it — make “The Hero” delicious.
Rated R for drug use, language and some sexual content. 1:36. Kentucky.