Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) is an aging movie star, who gets two big pieces of news in one day. The first: he has been chosen to receive a lifetime achievement award for his work in Hollywood westerns. The second: he has pancreatic cancer, and likely only months to live if he does not undergo a procedure. With this sudden announcement, Lee tries to make amends with his distant daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter). At the same time, he begins a relationship with the much younger Charlotte (Laura Prepon), and wrestles with his legacy as a big-screen cowboy.

There are a tiny number of films worth seeing solely for a performance. The Hero, the newest drama from writer/director Brett Haley, is one of them. This is a starring role seemingly tailor-made for Elliott. An actor iconic for his smooth drawl and moustache, he shares many other similarities with Lee: a career doing voice-over for commercials and sophisticated if small character parts. One may have a hard time differentiating the star and the protagonist, but Elliott gets the time and space to mine deeply into the material. He finds pathos and nuggets of deadpan comedy that feel lived-in and true. In one of The Hero’s best scenes, the camera stays on him as he rehearses an audition, capturing how Lee’s essence and difficult history inform the nuances of the line readings. (That Elliott shares so many traits with Lee makes this moment one of many self-reflexive treasures.)

Thankfully, the drama is not just a one-man show. Although tracking similar territory and themes as Haley’s previous effort, I’ll See You in My Dreams with Blythe Danner, the filmmaker has a sharper visual sense here. (Marc Basch also returns as Haley’s co-scribe.) The director keeps returning to two scenic motifs – the tranquil beach where Lee often goes and the desert plains where his big-screen “Hero” resided – to show how both inform him. As with his predecessor, Haley allows a character to wordlessly respond to devastating news; here, it is in long shot but the effect is just as piercing.

Nevertheless, the drama is not without clichés. Beyond the life-threatening illness and chilly father-daughter relationship, the screenplay sometimes falters to some predictable plot progressions. (One metaphor espoused by one of Lee’s close friends, played by Nick Offerman, feels especially clunky.) Meanwhile, although Prepon and Elliott have a warm chemistry, their romance seems thin for much of the 97-minute film. Her decision to become involved in a relationship with a much older man is too convenient. These conventions hold The Hero back from greatness. Regardless, Elliott’s superb work anchors the film through some bumpier bits.