With his shock of white hair, crosshatched tan skin and deep, sonorous voice, 72-year-old Sam Elliott seems less human than something forged out of silver, leather and smoke. He’s long been a valuable supporting player, whether on-screen (“Grandma,” “I’ll See You In My Dreams”) or mostly off (“The Big Lebowski”).
In “The Hero,” Elliott finally gets to claim center stage, in a role that often slyly invokes his iconic stature and voice. In the film’s opening sequence, his character, an aging actor named Lee Hayden, is recording a commercial for barbecue sauce, patiently doing take after take of the exact same line-reading: “The perfect partner for yer chicken.” What follows is a portrait of a lonely, isolated man who’s perfectly content to spend the day smoking weed with his dealer (Nick Offerman) and watching Buster Keaton comedies — that is, until he receives a piece of news that forces him to reach out to the handful of people populating the contact list on his phone.
Directed by Brett Haley from a script he wrote with Marc Basch, “The Hero” moves at a languid pace, often giving way to Lee’s own dreams of reprising his most famous role (from which the title of the movie is taken). When he meets an attractive younger woman named Charlotte (Laura Prepon), his life takes an unexpected zag, which itself leads to more surprising developments. It’s at this point that Haley turns the screws in ways that can feel overly plotty and credulitystraining, simply to provide the kinds of reversals and high stakes that all the screenwriting formulas prescribe. (Krysten Ritter plays Lee’s disaffected daughter, and Elliott’s real-life wife, Katharine Ross, plays his busy, pointedly self-actualized ex.) A setback with Lee’s relationship with Charlotte feels particularly forced.
But even at its most contrived, “The Hero” exerts a soothing attraction not unlike the man at its center. The filmmaker does a terrific job of capturing Lee within his self-secluded environment, a cozy, well-appointed cabin in the hills above Malibu. The rhymes and rhythms of his life take on their own heartbeat, and the audience is swept along for the same low-key, quiet ride. But mostly, “The Hero” gives viewers the chance simply to revel in Elliott’s wily, seductive gifts as a screen object who is no less dazzling today than he was when he was a lithe heartthrob 40 years ago in “Lifeguard.” (No, you paid to see it five times when you were 16.)
There’s been some chatter lately about critics evaluating actors by their looks, a fraught but often necessary part of the job when analyzing a performance within the confines of a pitilessly huge screen. “The Hero” provides a textbook case in how good looks and sex appeal invite pleasure but are never enough. The key is expressiveness, whether in the form of a well-timed glance from under a cocked eyebrow or simply standing on a beach watching the waves roll in.
There are moments, like those beach scenes in “The Hero,” when Elliott evokes more meaning and sympathy from the back of his wiry, weathered neck than most actors do from all manner of scenery-chewing. (He also delivers an impressive tutorial in nuance over the course of two radically different line-readings of a fictional script.) That’s the weird alchemy of screen acting: At its best, it’s a combination of careful technique, canny withholding and unquantifiable charisma. And it’s what Elliott embodies in every frame of this modest but inordinately absorbing little movie. You heard it here first: The kid’s going places.
R. At area theaters. Contains drug use, obscenity and some sexuality. 93 minutes.