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Review: Eastwood rides again in mellow western, ‘Cry Macho’

If “Cry Macho” is the film that ultimately ends Eastwood’s illustrious career, it deserves to go down as a satisfying coda. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

We’ve reached the point at which, simply by virtue of his age, every Clint Eastwood film has to be discussed as if it’s potentially his last rodeo.

Eastwood turned 91 years old in May, and conventional wisdom would suggest that it’s unlikely he’ll continue to direct into his mid 90s. Indeed, the general critical conversation around “Cry Macho,” the director’s 39th film and the latest chapter in a prolific run that has seen him release nine films since his 80th birthday, seems to be preemptively treating it as if it’s preordained as his final film. But I wouldn’t count him out just yet.

When asked by Kenneth Turan in a recent Los Angeles Times interview about future plans, Eastwood said, “If something comes along where the story itself, the telling of it, is fun, I’m open to it.” “Cry Macho” very well could be the film that sees Eastwood, as both a director and an iconic star, finally ride off into the sunset, but we could be having this same conversation in a year. Eastwood defies the odds. 

Part of the reason that it’s so appealing to think of “Cry Macho” as the definitive final Eastwood film (beyond the media/publicity narrative) is that something about it feels fitting: there’s a poetry in the multi-hyphenate concluding his career with a return to the Western genre, in a role that very self-consciously plays on his status as one of the iconic cowboys in American cinema.

Clint Eastwood as Mike Milo in “Cry Macho.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Eastwood stars as Mike Milo, a former rodeo star who suffered from a bevy of injuries and isn’t quite the man he used to be. Worse still, part of him continues to grieve for his wife and son, who were killed in an accident. It isn’t clear if Eastwood is diegetically meant to be 91 years old in this 1979-set picture — or if we should simply take the fact that the star looks good for his age into account — but his gingerly movements and slow pace become part and parcel of the character. 

Mike’s journey is set in motion when Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam), a Texas rancher who recently fired the former rodeo star after remaining loyal to him for years, comes to the ex-cowboy in need of a favor. Claiming that he owes him after years of financial and emotional support, Howard sends Mike to Mexico to retrieve his son Rafael (Eduardo Minett), who is living with his wealthy mother (Fernanda Urrejola), a woman he claims is emotionally unstable and abusive. Mike reluctantly agrees to make the trip, eventually finding Rafo cockfighting with his prized rooster Macho on the streets of Mexico City. Additional plot complications follow: Mike gets caught in a feud between Howard and Rafael’s mother, the Mexican federal police begin to pursue, and the old cowboy and the young man become closer along the way. 

In conjunction with the generally agreed-upon sentiment that Eastwood’s continued production is rather remarkable, there is a more hotly contested debate about the extent to which his films remain essential viewing. Put in more blunt terms: has Eastwood lost a step, or has he merely continued to demonstrate an efficient mastery of the signature Eastwood style? If you’re coming to this review for the perspective of an expert or a hardcore Eastwood auteurist, I’ll be the first to admit that you’ve come to the wrong place. In all honesty, I’ve been an occasionally harsh critic of the recent Eastwood films, growing exasperated by “Sully’s” repetitions and the tedium of “The 15:17 to Paris.” Even 2019’s “Richard Jewell,” an Eastwood film that I mainly liked, didn’t entirely cohere for me. 

That being said, so many intelligent and perceptive critics have countered this dominant narrative that I’ve attempted to approach the films differently over time. If you’re looking for a great example of this, Film Inquiry critic Shawn Glinis’ review of “The 15:17 to Paris” does a phenomenal job of defending a film that was routinely trashed by critics (including yours truly), arguing that its choices actually offer a “radical form” that viewers did not perceive. Though I haven’t done so yet, the piece genuinely makes me want to revisit the film and approach it through a new lens. I return to this piece in part because some of the curious choices that have reoccurred in Eastwood’s recent films (and are addressed in relation to “The 15:17” in that piece) return in “Cry Macho.” There’s a poetry to the images of Texas sunsets and open country that doesn’t translate to scenes in which characters are simply talking to one another; the dialogue feels wooden and labored, setting up the basics of the plot while suffering from a clumsiness that I can’t fully ignore but also perhaps understand better due to alternative critical perspectives. 

Eduardo Minett as Rafo in “Cry Macho.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

From one angle, there’s a way in which Eastwood’s age makes it easier to accept a certain stiffness in the action and plotting. This particular project has a fascinating backstory: per the LA Times piece, Eastwood was originally offered this role at the age of 58, turning it down because he was too young (he suggested Robert Mitchum). Contrary to Eastwood’s assertions, it is rather easy to see how this plays with a younger actor: it just becomes a more conventional film. Returning once again to Glinis’s piece, he identifies that sections of “The 15:17” are “languid in pace,” which is a phrase that could also be applied to “Cry Macho” and, indeed, many of the recent Eastwood pictures. Though it’s easy to see a more conventionally suspenseful version of this story with a man younger than Eastwood, there’s something delightful about the way the film puts narrative momentum on the back burner – especially in the second half. The film is economical, running at a manageable 103 minutes, but it is unhurried and meandering, offering unique non-narrative pleasures while still working within the confines of a fairly simple story. 

The film begins to soar when Eastwood and Minett pull off the highway to stay in a small Mexican town; Eastwood has a way of making this detour seem so casual and improvisational (“This looks like an interesting town, let’s take a look”), conveying a generosity and curiosity that defines “Cry Macho.” The pursuit of Mike and Rafael by the police continues here, yet Eastwood shifts his attention to the relationship between the central character and Marta (Natalia Traven), a cantina owner who protects the men from the police and begins to fall in love with Mike (she’s also a widow, a source of bonding between the two). Though some may propose that these scenes border on being overly sentimental, I was enraptured by their kindness and simplicity: we see Eastwood making tortillas with Marta, teaching Rafo how to ride a horse, communicating with Marta’s granddaughter in sign language, and acting as the town’s informal veterinarian. The dialogue is no longer defined by the forced mechanisms of plot and story structure, flowing more directly from the interactions between the characters — who each transcend language and culture barriers to connect with one another. 

Clint Eastwood as Mike Milo and Eduardo Minett as Rafo in “Cry Macho.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

The story returns to the forefront at a certain point, and Eastwood doesn’t necessarily handle everything in that department with exceptional skill. There’s a late-in-the-game twist about the motivations of Rafo’s father that isn’t resolved in an especially satisfactory manner as the film reaches its conclusion, and if one wanted to argue that the characterization of his mother as a potentially mentally ill femme fatale borders on the misogynistic, I wouldn’t rush to defend the film.

Regardless, what lingers are those mellow stretches, that placid depiction of daily life that deepens these on-screen relationships and steadily produces an ambience of warmth, enhanced by cinematographer Ben Davis’ skillful work behind the camera and Mark Mancina’s gentle score. If the major appeal of “Cry Macho” is to see Eastwood in action — older and slowed down, yes, but still sprightly and commanding the screen — the film provides us with ample time to spend with the star in mundane settings that still achieve a really wonderful emotional resonance. It’s clear that Eastwood intuitively knows how to frame his performance based on his star image; the film’s most impressive moments highlight his grandeur as an icon, his wounded masculinity and the cowboy performance that hides it, or this quasi-spiritual dimension that seems to connect him to the atmosphere and natural world around him.

It would be insincere to ignore some of the clunkier aspects of the whole affair, but it’s equally foolish to deny the poignancy “Cry Macho” achieves through these relatively simple means. If this film is the one that ultimately ends Eastwood’s illustrious career — or even if it’s merely his last screen appearance — it deserves to go down as a satisfying coda. 

Star Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“Cry Macho” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

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