It was the anniversary of Old Mrs Jack’s exit from the planet and I wanted to sit and cry. Mad Maud knew it and shushed the old biddies and bastards back to their rooms and let me sit in the common room in a small cloud of loss. We rowed, Mrs Jack and I, and she could be mean if I didn’t let her choose the holidays, and I could be hard work if she muttered a word during Blake’s 7, but love is everything, eh? I popped this film on the iPad and drifted into feelings.
There’s a scene in The Hero, when Sam Elliott’s new and unexpectedly mid-30s bed buddy gifts him a hug. I felt the warm arms snaking around him with a sting of tears. Old Mrs Jack hugged like that: all elbows and arms, enveloping in a waft of perfumed hair, feminine energy and love. Laura Prepon (as Charlotte, a comedian) gifts that moment wonderfully: she is young, shapely, beautiful – everything to pull in a man, young or old – but it is a person that gifts the hug. Nicely played. She also gives Elliot’s Lee some poetry that catches his soul… Old Jack misses being recognised like that; being seen.
The film belongs to Elliott. Like The Shootist, but without the pace, this lyrical, languorous but engrossing picture is about an old actor learning he is dying and dealing with it. He has to resolve old issues – don’t they all – with family (albeit, no real problem from the wife; Katherine Ross gives off the wise familiarity of the ex that can’t get away because there’s a daughter). Krysten Ritter is Lucy, the daughter. She brings a sharpness and challenge to her father, calling him on the misdemeanours of the past and clumsiness of the present. But in all these scenes, the women circle a solid, craggy and exposed Elliott. In places, he sparkles tears or full-on cries. He’s a picture of masculine, but you don’t feel the machismo. You feel the old man standing on the finish line: scared.
Now, there’s plenty of drug use which pissed me off, if I’m honest. Nick Offerman weirdy-beards it as old buddy Jeremy Frost and sits with Elliott, air thick with spliffs and friendship, watching Buster Keaton classics. Drugs is how Elliott meets Prepon, each staring in fascination at the other. Drugs is how he gets through a faintly tragic honorary night with old fans of the Western he made in the ’70s. It speaks to a film-maker’s culture rather than something that makes sense of these characters. Elliott’s shock at a no-chance diagnosis should have been numbing enough. Glances beadily at writer-director Brett Haley…
There are few signs of illness and no fatalities in The Hero. So you watch this final splash of life with a fresh soulmate aware that reality is not like this. But the darkness is in the moments of fantasy: Elliott steps back into scenes he shot decades ago, but with a colourful shadow coming at him from the edges of the frame. Yup – death. But Prepon, Ritter, even the gorgeous beaches and waves make for renewal.
This is a gently paced, prettily shot story that noticeably avoids sentimental slush. The cast give classy, touching and open-hearted performances. Film-school plotting arises in corners – there’s a reaction to a stand-up routine that comes from another world – but old Jack took the message to heart on a bad day.
That said, it’s not a wildly subtle message as Prepon’s Christine reads out Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Dirge Without Music in full, making Elliot’s eyes glisten:
“Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”
Nor should any of us be, no matter the loss.
Give this a go if your sadness needs a salve and a well-crafted prod.