Clint Eastwood has long asserted that 1992’s “Unforgiven” would be the last film he made in the western genre, the genre that both began and defined his screen career. Beginning with a lead role in the late 1950s television series “Rawhide,” then embodying the now-iconic antihero the “Man with No Name” in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy, and finally starring and occasionally directing a bevy of western films ranging in quality from good to great (“High Plains Drifter,” “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” “Pale Rider”), “Unforgiven” felt like the perfect cap to that era of his career. Eastwood’s revisionist western, in which the 62-year-old played an aging gunslinger out to perform one last job, won him the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, and is now considered to be one of the greatest western films ever made. It also sees Eastwood playing a man who is both getting too old for his line of work, and doesn’t quite fit in with the changing world around him. Taking Eastwood’s previous western films into account when examining “Unforgiven,” it feels like he was deconstructing the seemingly indestructibly antihero character type that made him an icon, revealing the humanity that lies underneath the bravado.
But there was a film that Eastwood had wanted to make even before “Unforgiven” came along, but never did. In 1975, N. Richard Nash published “Cry Macho,” a rejected screenplay that he worked into a novel that he then reworked into a screenplay. Despite lots of interest and attempts from various filmmakers to get a movie version off the ground for many years, the project never materialized. Even Eastwood, when asked to star in the film in the late 1980s, opted to make another “Dirty Harry” sequel instead. Recently, Eastwood said about it that it was something he “always thought I’d go back and look at that. It was something I had to grow into. One day, I just felt it was time to revisit it. It’s fun when something’s your age, when you don’t have to work at being older.” And so, nearly 30 years after “Unforgiven,” Eastwood, now 91, returns to the genre with the neo-western “Cry Macho,” which he directs and stars in, with Nash’s screenplay featuring contributions by previous Eastwood collaborator Nick Schenk.
In “Cry Macho,” Eastwood plays Mike Milo, an ex-Texas rodeo star who turned to horse training after a back injury ended his career. But Mike is getting older, and the start of the film sees his boss Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam) giving him the boot. It’s in this scene that it becomes evident that this isn’t going to be exactly the same gruff and snarling role that we’ve seen Eastwood play in this latter stretch of his career in movies like “Gran Torino,” even though he has that same squinty-eyed look and growling voice. After Polk pokes him to react in some way to his firing him, Mike matter-of-factly states, “I’ve always thought of you as a small, weak, and gutless man—but that’s no reason to be rude.”
But then the film jumps ahead one year, and now Polk is calling on Mike to ask him for one more favor. He needs Mike to go to Mexico to retrieve his teenage son Rafael, nicknamed Rafo (Eduardo Minett), from his mother and bring him back to Texas to live with him. Mike reluctantly agrees, and when he gets there, he finds that Rafo’s mother Leta (Fernanda Urrejola) doesn’t seem to care about her son or know where he is. When he locates Eduardo, he finds a kid whose head is full of false notions of masculinity, who turned to a life of crime and cock-fighting with his rooster Macho to avoid the much worse abuse he’s been experiencing at home. Together, the pair make the journey back to Texas, pursued by Leta’s henchmen along the way.
In some of his later westerns, Eastwood looked back at the Old West with a sentimental eye. In 1980’s “Bronco Billy,” his characters played icons of the Old West in a traveling show; all of the cowboys and Native Americans and sharpshooters and bareback riders are mere actors selling an idealized version of a bygone era. In “Unforgiven,” set in the 1880s, Eastwood looked back at that time period with a contemporary eye, playing with morality and offering up a much more complicated version of the Old West than was seen in many classic westerns. In “Cry Macho,” Eastwood looks back not so much on a time or a place but on a man, as he plays another character who finds himself left behind by the world he knows and loves. The arguments that Eastwood is too old to play Mike and that perhaps he should have cast someone else are fair; his age is acutely obvious throughout the film. But his performance, in which he only occasionally brings out that tough guy persona that he’s best known for, is one of Eastwood’s most gentle and introspective, one that feels appropriate for his age and this character. In his conversations with Rafo and others throughout the film, Eastwood gradually peels back the layers to Mike. He reveals that he’s a widower, his wife and child having died in a car accident some years before, leading to substance abuse and other issues for him. For a portion of the film, Mike and Rafo stop over in a sleepy town, where they enjoy the slow life with Marta (Natalia Traven), a middle-aged woman who has also experienced loss, and her grandchildren. When checking out one of the townsfolk’s sick animals, Mike turns to Rafo and says, “I don’t know how to cure old,” in a tone that suggests he’s talking about more than just the pet. But as much as “Cry Macho” looks back at Mike’s life, it even moreso looks ahead, as the sweet friendship he builds with Rafo and the potential prospect of a new life with Marta offers Mike the chance to start over. It feels like an appropriate parallel to the actor and filmmaker who has reinvented himself and his career time and again throughout the decades, and it’s also a surprisingly hopeful message for what is at times a rather melancholy story.
But while “Cry Macho” does a fairly decent job developing its characters, it’s slight on story and thin on theme. In fact, compared to the complicated moralities present in a film like “Unforgiven,” “Cry Macho” is almost astoundingly simple, as if Eastwood was unwilling to push any boundaries or take any risks. There are some interesting subjects breached in “Cry Macho,” among them that of toxic masculinity. Throughout their journey, Mike and Rafo are joined by Rafo’s rooster Macho (who I guess you could also call the film’s savior and comic relief). When Rafo first meets Mike, Rafo says of his rooster, “He is macho. Do you know what it means, macho? It means strong.” When he reiterates this sentiment a little later on, Mike tells him that when they get to Texas “you can watch all that “macho” crap up there too. Nobody likes that stuff.” Mike’s differing views on what constitutes strength and masculinity become more apparent toward the end of the film, when Rafo tells him, “You used to be strong, macho. Now you’re nothing.” Mike responds:
“This macho thing is overrated….Just people trying to be macho to show that they’ve got grit. That’s about all they end up with. And you sit there and let a bull step all over you, and you let a horse throw you 50 feet in the air. What an idiot. Only an idiot would be in a profession like that.”
Obviously, Mike is referring to himself here, looking back at his career as a rodeo star, something that seems almost as emblematic of the heroes of the Old West as the cowboy. It’s always fascinating when entries in the western genre tackle the subject of machismo, as the perceived masculine ideal is almost as much a part of the genre as the imagery of cowboy hats, horses, and sweeping landscapes. It’s present in John Ford’s shot of John Wayne twirling twin pistols in “Stagecoach.” It’s present when Alan Ladd’s Shane rides away from a life of domesticity on the ranch. And it’s present in Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, a man who speaks little, spurns sentimentality, and avoids relationships. It’s great to see someone with history with the genre like Eastwood broach the subject in “Cry Macho,” but he also never explores it with much depth, choosing to tease us with vague lines of caution and regret instead.
As a whole, “Cry Macho” is also very meandering and about as slowly-paced as 91-year-old Eastwood’s shuffling footsteps. Its conclusion also comes up quite suddenly and isn’t entirely satisfying. It’s a pleasant movie, but not one where much of memorable import occurs. But its scenery and Mark Mancina’s score are lovely to look at and listen to. “Cry Macho” is set in 1979, but I found myself frequently forgetting that over the course of the film. There’s a timelessness to the desert vistas and crumbling roadside towns and even the cowboy hat that sits atop Mike’s head for most of the film that feel representative of an image of the West that exists outside of any specific time and place. And there’s something to be said for seeing Eastwood (with the aid of a stunt double) back in the saddle for the first time in almost three decades. “Cry Macho” may be a minor work in the filmmaker’s storied filmography, but it’s still worth taking a look at.
“Cry Macho” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until October 17. Runtime: 104 minutes. Rated PG-13.