By Noah Gittell
Clint Eastwood likes to play jazz piano in spare time, and you can tell by watching his films. They’re all riffs on a theme. For almost his entire career, but especially starting with 1992’s “Unforgiven”, Eastwood has been playing variations of the same character in new modalities. He’s the lone figure standing up for justice in an unjust world. He’s an aging man of violence trying to atone for his sins — often with more violence. It’s the story of Eastwood himself, who ushered in a new era of violent American films with Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy and the Dirty Harry movies and has spent the next fifty years unpacking them.
His latest, “Cry Macho”, is a mostly uninspiring entry in his filmography, but it’s beautiful that it exists at all. The 91-year-old directs himself as Mike Milo, a retired rodeo star and former ranch hand who is asked by his boss (Dwight Yoakam) to travel to Mexico and persuade his estranged teenage son Rafa (Eduardo Minnett) to return home to Texas. Rafa has been living with his absentee mother, whose role as some sort of organized crime boss has left her unable to keep an eye on her son. He’s turned into what an old fella like Clint might call “a bad seed,” participating in a cockfighting ring and, presumably, other nefarious activities.
Why does this man ask the quite elderly Mike to complete such a dangerous task? No reason is given, nor is one required. We also need no explanation for why Rafa’s mother, a beautiful but reckless woman, would attempt to seduce Mike, a man at least 50 years her senior, and become furious when he rejects her advances. Is he really so irresistible? It’s Clint directed by Clint, so the answer is always yes. We have been watching Eastwood reluctantly protect neglected youngsters and fend off the advances of ravenous women for so long that we simply can’t imagine a world where these things do not happen.
Still, as much as “Cry Macho” is the same old Eastwood, it offers a slightly evolved version of his brand of alpha-masculinity. It all revolves around Rafa’s pet rooster — the eponymous Macho — to whom Mike takes a liking. It turns out the former tough guy has a soft spot for animals. When the pair get stranded in a small border town, Mike becomes the de facto town vet, healing all the residents’ pets with only a gentle touch and a modicum of know-how. It’s a thoughtful subversion of the genre on which Eastwood built his persona. The Western has always been defined in part through man’s domination of animals. “Cry Macho” successfully revises that convention and presents a gentler, kinder archetype more fit for the 21st century.
Sometimes it’s overly gentle, though, and even a little too kind. “Cry Macho” proceeds at a stately pace — it’s more of a hangout movie than an action-oriented Western — and at times it just plain fails to hold your attention. The long scenes of Eastwood driving his old pick-up truck have a certain resonance, as there’s no better metaphor for Eastwood’s determinedly unending career than a shot of him driving through the desert. But they also wear on you, especially since so little is happening during the pit stops. There’s a lot of eating and talking, and talking and eating, and a few threats of violence that never amount to much. It’s almost as if Eastwood has been taking cues from Richard Linklater, and this is his “Before Sunrise”.
In the end, “Cry Macho” barely works as a film, but it succeeds as a compelling cultural artifact. Here’s what is possible when a movie star lives for a long time and never stops working. You get to know him better than you know some of your loved ones, and eventually the particular qualities of the film around him barely matter. Every movie is an autobiography, and the fact that he’s even still here is a great story.
“Cry Macho” is currently in theaters and is available to stream on HBO Max.