Cry Macho: Clint Eastwood’s first Western since ‘Unforgiven’ is funny, poignant and earnest, but ultimately a minor entry in the icon’s illustrious film cannon

Cry Macho (2021) is legendary actor\director Clint Eastwood’s first Western since the Oscar Winning classic Unforgiven(1992). Apart from playing the lead role, the 91-year old Clint produced and directed this film from a script that has been kicking around Hollywood for almost 50 years.

This macho thing is overrated. Just people trying to show that they’ve got grit. That’s about all they end up with. It’s like anything else in life: you think you got all the answers, then you realize, as you get older, you don’t have any of them.

Clint Eastwood in “Cry Macho”

Very few human beings live to be 91. if some are lucky (or unlucky) to last that long, then you can bet that majority of them are either bedridden or wheelchair-bound, with senility having knocked out all their mental faculties. So when someone aged 91 produces, directs and stars in a feature film, then that itself becomes quite an accomplishment. And when that someone turns out to be Clint Eastwood- the most durable, the most decorated, and the most beloved American movie star of all times (perhaps, not counting John Wayne); someone who has been working steadily in the film industry for almost seven decades now- having acted in more than 60 films, majority of which he produced & directed himself, then the film he has made disarms any kind of criticism. “Cry Macho” – produced by, directed by, and starring a nonagenarian Clint Eastwood, and co-produced by another legendary nonagenarian, Albert S. Ruddy, the man who produced The (first) Godfather (1972)– is surrounded by so much greatness that one detests criticizing anything inside it. But since I have decided to write about the film, i guess i have to be honest about my feeling. So here it goes… Clint is one of my favorite movie stars of all time (perhaps, even the most favorite); i don’t think i have taken to any movie star the way i took to him. The number of his films i have reviewed on this site bears testament to my admiration for him. Agreed, he’s not the world’s greatest actor (or director), but he possesses such a towering screen presence that mixes effortless cool, swaggering masculinity and a refined insouciance that I have not found in any of the stars that came after him. He can dominate a scene simply by walking into it, and hold the screen with a blank stare or his trademark squint.

As a filmmaker, he has come to acquire a formal grace, narrative economy and technical classicism that’s on par with a John Ford. He has the ability to put across the most complex stories uncomplicatedly and efficiently, without resorting to any form of flashy technique or cinematic ostentatiousness. In short, his movies- which are predominantly human dramas done on a modest scale- are an anachronism in today’s film industry- driven by fast-paced, special-effects laden, big-budget, superhero fantasies. So it’s no wonder that his latest film, “Cry Macho” is set in the 1970s, and is based on a script written by N. Richard Nash that has been kicking around Hollywood since the early 70s. When Nash couldn’t get any studio interested in his screenplay, he published it as a novel in 1975. When the novel won acclaim, Nash was able to sell the film rights. Albert S. Ruddy had been trying to get the film made since the 70s. He first offered it to Clint in the late 80s, but Clint felt that he wasn’t old enough for the role, and suggested Robert Mitchum for the part. Over the years, several actors have come to be attached to the project- Ruddy was all set to shoot the film with Arnold Schwarzenegger at one point, but the star got involved in a ‘domestic scandal’ and the project was cancelled again. Finally, in late 2020, Clint committed to direct and star in the film and, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Clint, in his typical fashion, finished the film within two months of beginning the shoot- and one day ahead of schedule.

In “Cry Macho,” Clint plays Mike Milo, a broken-down ex-Rodeo star- who had to retire because of a back injury. Since then he has been breeding horses for Ranch-boss Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam). Milo is a widower leading a solitary existence- he lost his wife and children in an accident. The film begins in 1979, and the initial portions of the film is rife with Clint’s self-reflection. The first words spoken to Clint’s Milo (by Polk) is in the film is “You’re late”; to which Clint growls: “For what?..” And to this Polk asks Milo to clear his locker, and then clear out of the ranch; Polk is done with this old-timer, and he prefers now to bet on ‘new blood.’ But a year after ignominiously firing Milo, Polk is back at Milo’s doorstep with his tail between his legs. Polk needs Milo’s help: Polk’s 13-year old son Rafo(Eduardo Minett) is being mistreated by his Mexican Ex-wife, Leta(Fernanda Urrejola), and he wants Milo to travel to Mexico and bring Rafo back to him; Polk has some legal issues that prevents him from crossing the border. (on a side note: Polk could very well be a Warner Bros. studio executive, who is at first dismissive of Clint due to his age, but then realizes that he is the only one who can tackle this old-fashioned story set in a ‘Western’ milieu, and comes crawling back to him to beg him to take up the project). Milo accepts Polk’s offer- even though he has a poor opinion of Polk, he owes Polk for some help he had done him in the past.

Milo has been led to believe that Leta is some kind of a crazy, Lady-Don, who has been obsessively holding on to Rafo with her power and influence. But upon entering Mexico, Milo has no trouble walking into Leta’s mansion, which is filled with her henchmen. In her meeting with Milo, Leta appears courteous and expresses no objections to Milo taking Rafo back to Polk. Leta also informs Milo that Rafo has turned to a life of crime, participating in cockfights with a rooster named Macho. Milo tracks Rafo to one of these cockfights, and convinces him to return to America to meet his father. This is when Leta shows her ‘crazy’ side: she has Milo forcefully brought to her house and threatens him with dire consequences if he took the boy with him; the boy is her property and he’s going to stay in Mexico. A rattled Milo quickly makes his exit, but while driving back to Texas , Milo discovers that Rafo has snuck onto his truck. When Rafo steals his wallet and shares his desire to spend time with his father, Mike agrees to drive him to the border. The rest of the film is all about their journey: how the ancient cowboy and the young Mexican-American kid bond together; how each learns something from the other, how they dodge Leta’s henchman, the many characters they comes across during the journey, etc… it becomes a standard ‘buddy’ road-movie; a sort of a sweet and earnest version of “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” in which Clint co-starred with Jeff Bridges; it also brings back memories of Clint’s bonding with a Mexican bandit (played by Eli Walach) in “The Good the bad and the Ugly” .

“Cry Macho” is Clint’s first Western since 1992s ‘Unforgiven’. Okay, this is not a ‘traditional’ Western, it’s what you call a Neo-Western: the setting is 1970s, not 1870s, and people travel in cars and trucks and not on horses. There are no gunfights, big showdowns or battles with the natives. But it has the same Mexican-American border setting; an old “cowboy (in a Stetson) looking for redemption” as its protagonist; and the themes of bonding between an American man and a Mexican boy, the man’s relationship with the nature, man’s bond with horses (and other animals) etc.; There are scenes of horse ridings, breaking mustangs, campfire conversations, sleeping under the stars in the wilderness, and some truly wonderful shots of the wide open New Mexican Vistas. ‘Unforgiven’ was a landmark in Clint’s career as well as in the ‘Western’ genre. It won Clint two Oscars- for producing and directing. The film revised a lot of misconceptions about the old-West and subverted a lot of standard Western tropes. One of the main subversions was regarding masculinity and heroism: it portrayed lawmen as corrupt and murderous, and cowboy bounty-hunters as cowards and thieves. “Cry Macho” also tells a story of a cowboy who has realized the folly of his macho ways: Clint’s Mike Milo is fed up with macho posturing, and advices his young Mexican buddy against obsessing about ‘true grit’. Milo is a character dealing with aging, and is still optimistic about the possibility of starting all over again. This character is a far cry from the iconic ‘Man with no name’ and ‘Dirty Harry’- macho heroes who reveled in amoral violence. The film also deals with recent pet Clint themes like cultural differences\clashes and reconciliation, and identity issues- and i must add without shoving it down people’s throats like many recent Hollywood films are doing, so this film definitely ties very well into the late-career Clint Eastwood film template. But this film is no ‘Unforgiven’, and in coming years this film, most probably, would be considered a minor work from Clint. Because much of the issues that Clint tackles in the film has already been tackled by him in his previous films- and that too much more effectively. The themes of the older man becoming a mentor for the young, or the old man overcoming cultural differences, or finding love in (reasonably) old age, etc.. has been tackled superbly in films like “Million Dollar Baby,” “Bridges of Madison County” and “Gran Torino.” This film does not expand on these themes in anyway.

Apart from that, the film has issues of its own- much of it stemming from its rather implausible plot, poor pacing, uneven scripting and bad acting. While watching the film you get a good idea as to why the script was getting kicked around for so long. Even though the script has been polished by Clint’s regular writer Nick Schenk, it’s just not up to the mark. The film does have an interesting set up, but the stakes never get high; it always strives to be too sweet and earnest, hence there are no big buildups or payoffs. It unfolds at an unhurried pace- that’s not a big problem, but many a times it just go through the motions without showing anything interesting- and worse, sometimes the drama becoming too corny. The lengthy journey from Mexico to Texas that was supposed to be life-altering for both man and the boy faces very few hiccups. This after it has already been established that the boy’s mother is quite crazy and ruthless, and would stop at nothing to keep the boy in Mexico. She sends out her henchman(just one), Aurelio (Horacio Garcia Rojas), to go after them, but he comes across as more stupid than dangerous: at a couple of points in the journey he confronts Mike and Rafo in order to prevent their passage into America, but both times he’s overcome pretty quickly. I don’t know whether it was due to Covid regulations that Clint couldn’t have a truck full of Leta’s henchmen chasing Mike and Rafo, or whether it was due to Clint being too old to get into big action sequences anymore, or if it was keeping in with ‘non-macho’, pacifist theme of the film that big, violent conflicts are avoided; whatever is the case, it makes the film rather tame.

Then there’s the ‘buddy’ movie template of the film which is not exploited fully. For this kind of movie to work, the two characters have to be opposites, the more extreme their opposition the better, but here, the precocious, rebellious Mexican teenager turns out, rather quickly, to be a sweet kid; while the Cranky old man also thaws rather soon. So, the expected arc: of the initial conflict between the rough-hewn, aged cowboy and the wild, untameable ‘kid of the gutter’, which later settles down into mutual admiration and a long-lasting bond; is never satisfyingly traversed. Also, once Clint and the kid gets stranded in a dusty Mexican town, the film looses momentum. From a ‘buddy-road’ movie, the film shifts to a tentative romance between Clint’s Milo and a widowed café-owner, Marta(Natalia Traven). Now to be fair these small town scenes are very amusing and adds to the humanity of the drama. As Clint mingle with local folk, we see him unleash a lot of hidden talents: he fixes jukeboxes, teaches Rafo to break and ride horses, and becomes a sort of de facto veterinarian in town, curing all kinds of sick animals because of the special bond he can establish with them. And as he romances Marta, Rafo also finds love with Marta’s granddaughter. In these scenes we get a really nice snapshot of small-town Mexican life. We don’t get to see characters and moments like these in Hollywood films anymore, so taken on its own they are very heartwarming and sweet-natured, but they leave the main plot in the dust.

It takes a hell of a lot of time to get back to the original plotline of Milo and Rafo travelling to Texas, and when they finally get back in the truck and reach Texas, where Polk is waiting for Rafo, we hardly feel any sense of exhilaration or completion; It’s just another scene in the film: Rafo reuniting with his father after many years, as well as Rafo parting with Milo does not have a strong enough emotional resonance. Clint tries to close the film on an high note having Milo reunited with Marta, but we can see that coming, but still, it’s a joy to see this broken-down old man restarting his life in another country with a woman from a different culture. Clint looks great for a 91-year old, but he’s still 91. He’s gaunt and frail, and he walks with a stoop- it can be explained away by saying that he’s playing a rodeo star who has broken his back, but still, one misses the spring in his step. Clint can still throw a meaty punch, and take the gun away from his opponent, but in this film he refrains from firing the gun- maybe keeping in with the film’s theme- and let the bad guy getaway unharmed. This is also the first time since ‘Unforgiven’ that we have seen Clint riding horses (rather uncomfortably, i must say), and it does flood you with nostalgia. Unfortunately, the scene where he busts a bronco- accomplished by intercutting between a double performing in the long shot and Clint sitting (by all purposes) on a mechanical horse for the close-up is rather unintentionally funny; the staging and editing of the scene is so clumsy that I fell down laughing. We also get the usual ‘cliché’ of superstar Clint being hit upon by much younger women- in this case it’s Rafo’s mother, who’s determined to get the nonagenarian into bed; when the old man spurns her offer, she becomes all wild and crazy. From all the responses pouring in for the movie, i have noticed that Clint has gotten a lot of heat for this scene, as well as for his romance with Marta, but I guess a lot of people are mistaking Clint’s age with the character’s age: I feel that Mike Milo is supposed to be in his 60s or 70s, so the romance with Marta who’s a widowed grandmother seems okay, while it’s already established that Leta is wild and unpredictable prone to doing weird things, so getting this old man in bed must have been just one of her weird acts. But the fact that Clint is not playing an age-appropriate character is rather obvious and something that’s unusual for him; he has always been self-aware, and that self-awareness is lacking here; even in his last film, “The Mule”, he was very frail and old, but these qualities suited the character perfectly.

The performances of the actors in this film are a big letdown, especially taking into account that Clint’s films always had great performances- just look at the number of actors and actresses who have been nominated, and won Oscars for his films. Eduardo Minett as Rafo looks very uncomfortable. He never gets a good enough chemistry going with Clint, while Ms. Urrejola as his mother overdoes her ‘crazy’ act. Natalia Traven, who plays Marta, fares much better than others; she has a very expressive face and bonds well with Clint. The film doesn’t really have many characters, so most of the scenes does not involve too many people. I don’t know if Clint would have made a very different film if there was no pandemic, anyway the final product we have in front of us is a film with narrative flaws and devoid of much artistic gravitas, but nonetheless, charming, sweet-natured and lightweight; it’s earnest about its themes and doesn’t tax the viewers much. I don’t know whether Clint would make another film again. But the workaholic that he’s, I’m sure he would try, and i really hope this is not his swansong. I believe that Manoel de Oliveira, who made a film at age of 106, was the oldest director ever to make a film, and if Clint lives that long, we can expect at least 10 films more from him; the speed at which he works, he makes at least one film a year. I sincerely hope that he gets to go out with a really solid effort – something like what John Wayne managed with “The Shootist” or Henry Fonda with “On Golden Pond.”

2 thoughts on “Cry Macho: Clint Eastwood’s first Western since ‘Unforgiven’ is funny, poignant and earnest, but ultimately a minor entry in the icon’s illustrious film cannon

  1. I like Clint Eastwood as an actor. He has also directed some good movies. I wouldn’t compare him to John Ford. Ford created the modern movie western, which before him was two dimensional. I think a better comparison, would be to Anthony Mann.

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    1. Oh actually the comparison was purely based on their technique. there’s no question that Ford is miles ahead of Clint as a filmmaker

      Like

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