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Nobody Does It Quite Like Clint

‘Cry Macho,’ the latest from 91-year-old Clint Eastwood, sees the director reflecting on a singular career that’s mixed auteurism with mainstream appeal

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

“I know a little bit about that,” Mike Milo responds when asked whether he’s an actual, real-live cowboy. He’s being modest: Mike knows more about it than anybody else, and what he’s forgotten could probably fill a textbook. Except that he hasn’t forgotten anything, which is probably why, despite his endless decades of exploits as a rider, ranch hand, and all-around hombre, Mike is more ambivalent than boastful. Pride, in his case, came before a fall.

Mike Milo is the latest on-screen alter ego for Clint Eastwood, who knows as much about cowboys as anybody who doesn’t actually rope and hogtie as a day job, and who has been taking victory laps around his straight-shooting legacy for 30 years now post-Unforgiven. Cry Macho, which documents Mike’s slow-burning, deep-cleansing friendship with a 13-year-old Mexican youth named Rafo (Eduardo Minett), makes for one more rotation, or maybe even a last ride. It’s a road movie filled with circular detours away from its barely-there plot and back through its star-director’s filmography, as if at 91—an age that ties him with Frederick Wiseman as the oldest consistently working American filmmaker—Eastwood is determined to take the scenic route down memory lane.

The news that Warner Bros. is planning to rerelease a handful of Eastwood’s features theatrically and on HBO Max to celebrate his 50 years of directing crystallizes Cry Macho’s nostalgic allusions. Mike’s rodeo-virtuoso vocation is straight out of Bronco Billy, Eastwood’s lovely 1980 comedy about the proprietor of a failing Wild West show and his attempts to keep everybody happy and entertained under his big, red-white-and-blue tent. Elsewhere, Mike’s romance with a local Mexican widow evokes the gentle pleasures of Eastwood’s scenes with Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County, while the bits when he finds himself beguiled and humanized by an animal costar update the goofy interspecies camaraderie of Every Which Way but Loose. Most of all, Mike’s wary, protective mentorship of Rafo—an angry, headstrong child of divorce who has groomed his prize cockfighter, Macho, to be a miniature, bloodthirsty warrior—repeats the interracial-slash-intergenerational pathos play of 2008’s acclaimed Gran Torino, the surprise hit that saw Dirty Harry’s make-my-day catchphrase and raised it: “Get off my lawn.”

The stakes, it should be said, are considerably lower this time out, which is just where Eastwood wants them. In Gran Torino, the filmmaker and his proto-MAGA avatar Walt Kowalski were reckoning with their own encroaching anachronism—the realization that America was changing around them. Walt’s self-actualization was realized during a showdown with some gangbangers that unfolded as a matter of life and death. Here, Clint throws one punch, and the lone act of cathartic violence belongs to a bird protecting its owner. There’s a lot of ruffling of feathers, but no actual casualties.

What makes Cry Macho a bit of an outlier in Eastwood’s recent output is not just its lighter-than-air tone, but the end run it performs around the all-caps theme of heroism that had most recently preoccupied its creator. The unofficial quadrilogy of American Sniper, Sully, The 15:17 to Paris, and Richard Jewell were triumphal myths cloaked in ambivalence, focusing on real-world figures who, having had greatness thrust upon them, decided in different ways that they either didn’t want any part of it or didn’t believe their own hype. Even 2018’s surprise hit The Mule, which cast Clint as a wizened horticulturalist turned cartel driver slyly exploiting his old-white-guy privilege at every checkpoint (think Green Book with Mahershala Ali’s role played by suitcases full of cocaine), was to some extent a riff on good guys and bad guys, with a ticking-clock FBI subplot thrown in to generate suspense.

Cry Macho isn’t about heroism, or even good guys and bad guys. Nobody really wears a black hat here. The action-movie aspects are so perfunctory as to be irrelevant; again, this is a movie in which the big standoff features a rooster. Instead, the script, adapted by Gran Torino scribe Nick Schenk from a 1975 novel by N. Richard Nash and clearly shaped around the edges by Eastwood, takes the other big idea informing The Mule—and Gran Torino, and while we’re at it, Space Cowboys, Million Dollar Baby, and Unforgiven—and focuses on it to the exclusion of pretty much everything else: the bittersweet humility of recognizing that you’ve made it to the homestretch, and the knowledge that no matter what’s left in the tank, you’re about to run out of road.

“There’s no cure for old,” growls Eastwood at one point during Cry Macho’s wonderful middle stretch, which finds Mike and Rafo hiding out from both the Federales and the boy’s wealthy, vengeful mother, Leta (Fernanda Urrejola), after they’ve left the latter’s palatial residence en route to Texas. The timeliness of this border-crossing narrative is readily apparent despite the story’s 1979 setting: Rafo is the definition of an American Dreamer, and his attempted crossing isn’t strictly legal. The retrieval mission has been subsidized by Mike’s boss Howard (Dwight Yoakam), a rodeo impresario who also happens to be the kid’s father, and whose relationship with Leta has fallen apart.

The unlikelihood that Howard would ask somebody as ancient as Mike to go on a semi-dangerous errand to retrieve a teenage boy—much less an ancient man whom he has already characterized (to his face) as a boozy, pill-popping, half-crippled wreck—is one of the many things that Cry Macho asks us to accept with a wry smile. Another is a hilarious bit of staging in which Mike eludes the cops just by hiding behind some boxes. You also have to believe that Mike’s preternatural gift for breaking horses extends to working with other members of the animal kingdom. To make ends meet before he and Rafo can run for the border, he becomes the village vet: the creature Mike diagnoses with the incurable case of old is a dog whose master joins a parade of pet owners who beat a path to the church where Mike and Rafo are hiding out.

Call him Saint Clint of Assisi, and unless you’re made of stone, seeing the former Harry Callahan tenderly minister to a pensive pot-bellied pig (“He just needs to lose a little weight, that’s all”) is the sort of thing that will get you right … here. [Extreme Big Lebowski voice]: Macho men also cry.

Suffice to say that in moments like these, Cry Macho hits the bull’s-eye without aiming high. The film’s ramshackle road-movie structure is a far cry from Eastwood’s prestige-y 2000s period, with its big-budget World War II epics and Shakespearean crime thrillers, à la Mystic River. For all the times Eastwood has leveraged his popular appeal against genuinely eccentric or idiosyncratic subject matter—like, say, a Charlie Parker biopic, or the quasi-experimentalism of the recent and bizarre The 15:17 to Paris —in Cry Macho he’s going directly for the mainstream jugular, albeit in a way that couldn’t exactly be called ruthless. When Eastwood wants to jerk tears, he’s good at it, Exhibit A being Million Dollar Baby and its devastating reversal of boxing-movie expectations. As a storyteller, he can be as sentimental as they come: play misty for me, indeed. But Cry Macho doesn’t push too hard on any level. What it’s packing isn’t melodrama, but a melancholy that transcends Mike’s hard-luck backstory of loss and addiction and plugs directly into our collective feelings about Eastwood as a kind of last man standing, and what it means that he remains determined—quite literally in this case—to keep getting back on the horse.

So what does it mean? Eastwood doesn’t need to make a movie like Cry Macho any more than tired old Mike needs to go to Mexico to help out Howard. The script alludes to the idea that Mike “owes” his friend for debts paid, a detail which could turn Cry Macho into a stealth allegory for Eastwood’s artistic practice—filmmaking as a form of noble obligation. But at this point, Eastwood’s prolificness signifies something else. He is, as ever, a compulsively productive professional, except that unlike someone like Woody Allen—a very different kind of 1970s icon who parodied the alpha-male machismo Clint dined out on for years—he seems to enjoy what he does.

It’s that feeling of enjoyment that animates and ever so slightly elevates Cry Macho above its more rote elements. When Mike growls at Rafo for being stubborn or ungrateful, or chides the kid’s dick-swinging posturing (“Guy names his cock Macho, it’s all right with me”), the grumpy-old-man shtick is thin and predictable. But the grace notes in the movie’s second half, especially Mike’s courtship of the kindly, comely, 60-something abuela Marta (Natalia Traven), are unexpected and informed by authentic tenderness: the desire of a wanderer to put down roots; the pleasure of two lonely people who’d given up on companionship transubstantiating shared respect and humor into intimacy.

This being a Late Eastwood movie, Cry Macho’s style maddeningly splits the difference between laziness and mastery, and offers plenty of grist for the auteurist mill. Its Southwestern horizon lines are only beautiful in a picture-postcard way, maybe, but they are beautiful; a lot of its scenes feel like first takes, which leads to some clunkiness but also a disarming air of spontaneity. Eastwood is the opposite of a perfectionist, but he is a professional, and his craft is sturdy. In a moment when blockbusters and indies alike seem almost algorithmically calibrated for maximum demographic appeal, Eastwood’s stubborn adherence to his own form of classicism—stately pacing; shamelessly overbearing musical cues; a strangely balanced refusal of either hyperbole or subtlety—results in a movie with a palpable sense of personality. It feels like it was made by steady, caring hands. In turn, this may be what’s so moving about the idea of Eastwood as the last man standing—what we respond to in Cry Macho isn’t just its maker’s specific legacy but a vanishing mode of moviemaking that hasn’t attracted a new vanguard of practitioners, and at this point, probably never will again.

The rebuttal to this lament might very well be that the form of upper-middlebrow, multiplex-auteur cinema that Eastwood has come to represent—especially since Unforgiven—is either too stale or narrow to endure on its own terms. The director’s stint as a chair-talking political and cultural reactionary doesn’t necessarily help the case for his 21st century relevance. Most critics were won over by Gran Torino, but the way it managed to play to a racist peanut gallery under the guise of multicultural solidarity felt like a guy having it both ways (something that could also be said of The Mule); the conservative bent of a movie like Richard Jewell doesn’t cancel out its complexity as a study of a would-be authoritarian learning to distrust the powers that be, but it colors it all the same.

The meaning of Gran Torino lay in the way that its (anti)hero graciously passed on his American birthright—in the form of a Motor City muscle car—to a deserving if unlikely young disciple. Cry Macho strikes a similarly conciliatory note; the lack of violence or even sustained drama could be taken as a sign that, at this point in his artistic narrative, Eastwood is happier to stretch out in his comfort zones than push past them. Which is fair enough. He’s earned the right to follow his muse, even when it leads him in circles. Cry Macho doesn’t go anywhere new, but as an illustration of the old line about the value of the journey rather than the destination, it sure paints a pretty picture.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.