I went to an advance screening of Clint Eastwood’s new film, Cry Macho, expecting another entry in his continuing exploration of American machismo and the myths it has given birth to and perpetuated, as well as of his own iconic persona. I was also intrigued by the fact that this was his second film in three years to either be set in Mexico or to feature Mexican characters. In The Mule (2018) he played an octogenarian horticulturist who tries to make ends meet by working as a courier for a Mexican drug cartel. Now he plays a nonagenarian washed out cowboy (Eastwood is about to turn 92) who is hired to bring a child back from Mexico City. The story’s skeleton is much the same in both films and both share the same scriptwriter: Nick Schenk who also wrote Gran Torino (2008) where Eastwood played an elderly, grumpy and racist war veteran in Detroit. The stereotypes in Cry Macho may not be as bad as those portrayed in The Mule. Hell, the movie is so laid back that it doesn’t have time for stereotypes. In fact, I was taken aback by its sweetness halfway through… but more on that in a second.
Based on N. Richard Nash’s 1975 novel (Nash is credited as a co-scriptwriter), Eastwood was offered to play the lead back in 1988 but he turned the offer down and proposed instead to direct the film adaptation if Robert Mitchum was cast in the lead. The project never took off but Eastwood kept it in the back of his mind until he felt ready to play the lead role. But what if: after all, Mitchum was the ultimate movie tough guy in the ’40s and ’50s and was, for a short while, persona non grata in Hollywood because of his alcoholism. He was never as down on his luck as Cry Macho’s protagonist, Mike Milo. But had that collaboration between Eastwood and Mitchum actually happened, it would have probably produced a much denser, more profound examination of masculinity and old age than this light, enjoyable and minor entry in Eastwood’s filmography. A missed opportunity indeed.
The movie starts in 1979 as Milo (Eastwood), a rodeo legend, drives to work in his beat-up pickup truck to be summarily fired by his boss, horse rancher Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam, always game to play scumbags) in the year’s best use of expositional dialogue. A year later, Howard calls Mike back to his office to ask for a favor: to drive to Mexico City and bring back his teenage son Rafo (Eduardo Minnett) who is in trouble. His wife ran away with him when Rafo was a child and his upbringing, it is implied, has left much to be desired. The question as to why send a nonagenarian who walks slowly and with a slump and not a younger quicker-on-his-feet employee to pretty much kidnap the boy is easily dismissed with that old “You owe me” line.
So Mike drives to Mexico City in his truck and arrives at the mansion home of Rafo’s sexy mother (Fernanda Urrejola; no mention is made either about how she amassed her fortune) where he is met by her two henchmen and she tells him that the kid is no good, that he is a monster, that he runs with the wrong crowd, and loves cockfighting so why don’t you check there, gringo? Good luck convincing Rafo to go back to his father. Mike finds Rafo at a cockfight and after saving him from a police raid, convinces him to ride back with him to Texas where Rafo will have the chance to become a real cowboy on his father’s ranch. Rafo sets one condition: that he take his gallo Macho with him (hence the title)—as long as he doesn’t sit in the front, Mike barks. However, his mom changes her mind and orders her henchmen to go after them. And so, as Mike and Rafo set off to the border, the henchmen and the federales follow in hot pursuit, but don’t expect any exciting car chases or major showdowns. The pursuit is incredibly low key as our two protagonists change cars after the pickup breaks down and Rafo finds clever ways to fool their pursuers. Eastwood is far more interested in getting as quickly as possible to the heart of the story: a detour to what “looks like an interesting town.”
That interesting town, as nameless as some of Eastwood’s most celebrated Western characters, has one restaurant, a shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe, a horse ranch, and a marshal appointed by his father, who we gather is (or was) an influential politician but whom we never meet. It’s here where Mike and Rafo decide to lay low and where the movie finds its groove as Mike gets a new lease on life and teaches Rafo a thing or two about horse-riding and being a man. Mike catches the eye of the middle-aged owner of the restaurant, Marta (a strong, charismatic, no-nonsense Natalia Traven who looks like a distant cousin of María Felix) and their romance is rather charming in its tentativeness; to see Eastwood break into an almost childish grin in these scenes is alone worth the price of admission. Coupled with the horse-training sequences and his adoption by the townsfolk as some sort of animal healer, these scenes possess a certain Tender Mercies vibe (Bruce Beresford’s gentle 1983 film starring Robert Duvall as a down-on-his-luck cowboy-hat wearing country music singer who finds a new lease on life working at a highway motel for a widowed mother and her child).
Mike may not speak a word of Spanish and Marta a word of English but you know they are meant for each other. But besides their senior romance, this whole section is full of small moments captured in simple images that evoke that classic Hollywood, not to say altogether United Statesian, myth of going back to simpler and more glorious times: meals shared with strangers, the sight of Eastwood on horseback for the first time since Unforgiven (1992), an old jukebox playing the Eydie Gormé version of “Sabor a mi” with Los Panchos, teenage flirting, et cetera. When Mike realizes it’s time to go, we, like both that old cowboy and his teen companion, don’t want to. But this is a road movie after all and like most road movies this one needs to make it to its final, and predictable, destination.
Eastwood’s thematic obsession with American machismo and the West is presented in a series of two-handers between Rafo and Mike, with Macho listening in, as they drive through Mexico’s diverse and monumental landscapes (actually New Mexico standing in for Mexico but still majestically captured by Ben Davis’s camera). The kid is fascinated by cowboy culture, by what it represents, by the concept of bravery. Mike has been there, done that; in his own words, “this macho thing is overrated.” They even discuss identity when Mike reminds the boy that he is American as well as Mexican. “You think I’m a gringo? A coward?” replies Rafo, further questioning this country’s concept of masculinity. But the film doesn’t go deeper than that.
We may criticize and overanalyze the movie’s many flaws but, in the end, this is the movie Eastwood wanted to make at this time in his life. He is the last Hollywood classicist standing, unencumbered by stylish flashes of camera movement and editing. As a storyteller he is a straight shooter. He may be underplaying his iconic status here but he also knows that as moviegoers who grew up with his movies we bring to the movie a lot of baggage. In his slow gait, his slightly hunched posture and gritty, sandpapery voice, we recognize an older version of his classic roles. We see in Mike Milo an older version of Josey Wales and Bronco Billy and yes, even Dirty Harry as he now shrugs his shoulders at the macho affectations of his younger days and continues embracing his role as an elder statesman.
Which is why we are all still waiting for that final statement, for that final film. With Cry Macho, the rooster named Eastwood is crowing that he ain’t done yet.
Featured image: CLINT EASTWOOD as Mike Milo and EDUARDO MINETT as Rafo (Credit: Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures)