In The Hero, Sam Elliott plays what at first glance appears to be a diminished version of himself – a veteran actor who has starred in a ton of westerns and is known for his 19th-century gunslinger mustache and a voice as big and deep as prairie thunder.

But his character – Lee Hayden – is more like Elliott than you might think, at least careerwise. Elliott has such gravity on screen, has been around for so long, has been so busy and so good during that time that we think of him as an actor of stature, though when you look at his credits, you see a lot of things like "voice of Chupadogra in Marmaduke."

And even in his more famous roles, like The Big Lebowski in 1998, his westernness is often used as a kind of caricature.

The guy has never been nominated for an Oscar. Might that change with The Hero?

Certainly, it's one of Elliott's biggest and meatiest roles, though one that is a little sneaky in creating sentiment and sympathy by encouraging the viewer to associate the character with the actor. There are important differences. As Elliott has said, he doesn't smoke pot, and he doesn't have cancer – the diagnosis that gets the plot rolling in The Hero.

Hayden gets the bad news from his doctor and makes copious use of marijuana (via his dealer and neighbor Nick Offerman) in a way that is not all medicinal. He keeps the diagnosis to himself, but takes awkward steps to reconcile with his ex (real-life wife Katherine Ross) and daughter (Krysten Ritter).

Hayden, 71, also strikes up a romantic relationship with a much younger woman (Laura Prepon) and persuades her to accompany him to a ceremony where he receives a western-themed lifetime achievement award (in fact, Elliott won something called the "Golden Boot Award" in 1990 and has won five Western Heritage Awards).

There are echoes here of I'll See You in My Dreams, another movie by writer-director Brett Haley, that one about a distraught widow (Blythe Danner) whose offbeat friendship with a younger man (Martin Starr)  helps her recommit to living.

Elliott had a role in that film, and you can feel in The Hero how much Haley wanted to build something substantial for this underused actor. There are a couple of scenes that accomplish this – even the introduction, which has Hayden doing vocal work in a barbecue sauce commercial, has surprising poignancy.

And Elliott crushes a scene in which he reads for a career-revival role, one with parallels to Hayden's relationship with his daughter. The emotion in that sequence, however, seems to displace some of the energy missing from Hayden's actual face-to-face encounter with her.

The Hero never feels as assured or consistent as I'll See You in My Dreams – dream sequences feel particularly out-of-place, and his love affair with Prepon seems so unlikely that I wondered at first if Hayden were dreaming that as well.

Elliott, though, excels at playing this heart-tugging avatar of himself. I see another Golden Boot in his future, at the very least.


The Hero

Directed by Brett Haley. With Sam Elliott, Katherine Ross, Krysten Ritter, Laura Prepon, Blythe Danner. Distributed by the Orchard.

Running time: 1 hour, 33 mins.

Parent's guide: R (drug use, language and some sexual content).

Playing at: Ritz 5, AMC Voorhees.