Clint Eastwood famously “buried” the western genre in his masterful “Unforgiven” (1992), winning Best Picture in one of the American Film Institute’s Top 4 Westerns of All Time.
Now, he returns to the genre for the first time in 30 years with “Cry Macho,” a neo-western that wears its earnest heart on its dusty sleeve, but with just enough classic Eastwood zingers and beautiful border vistas to overcome its more creaking, on-the-nose elements.
Based on the eponymous 1975 novel by N. Richard Nash (who originally wrote it as a screenplay that didn’t sell), the story follows former rodeo star Mike Milo (Clint Eastwood), who is hired by his cynical boss, Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam), to track down his estranged son Rafael “Rafo” Polk (Eduardo Minett) and bring him back to Texas.
At age 91, Eastwood walks a little slower and talks gruffer on a skinnier frame. He’s played aging drifters before, falling off a horse as an against-type Will Munny, but back then we believed the 60-year-old could come out of retirement for one last shootout. Add 30 years and it starts to strain credibility, but we can’t help but admire he’s still cranking out work.
His bond with a Latino teen recalls his get-off-of-my-lawn bond with his Asian neighbor in “Gran Torino” (2009), written by the same screenwriter Nick Schenk, who also wrote “The Mule” (2018). His other shotgun-rider is a cockfighting rooster named Macho, a treat for those who liked “Every Which Way But Loose” (1978). Say it with me: “Right turn, Clyde.”
Together, they create vintage Eastwood quips: “I don’t care if his name is Colonel Sanders. The day Macho sits up front is the day I barbecue his a**.” Later he jokes, “If a guy wants to name his cock ‘Macho,’ that’s fine with me,” which sets up the film’s closing punchline for some subversive sound design right as the end credits roll. Clint, you naughty boy.
On the downside, Rafo’s Mexican mom, Leta (Fernanda Urrejola), starts out interesting enough by saying, “Some of us are just not cut out to be parents,” but she quickly becomes overly sexualized, asking him to have a drink with her while patting the bed.
His romance with a widowed restaurant owner, Marta (Natalia Traven), is far more believable in the second half of the film. Instead of overt advances, they share subtle glances as he gently pours a glass of water for her deaf daughter. Rafo asks, “How do you know sign language?” to which he replies, “Just something you pick up along the way.”
The weakest link is Yoakam, which pains me to say because he was great in “Sling Blade” (1996). My wife and I even bought tickets to see the country legend perform live in Hagerstown, Maryland, before it was postponed by COVID-19. This time, the script gives him too much obvious exposition: “That was before the accident, the pills, the booze.”
It’s unnecessary dialogue as the camera soon pans across a wall of newspaper clippings before a framed photo comes alive to show his rodeo accident. Such visual storytelling is proof that filmmakers still reference Alfred Hitchcock’s introductory pan across photos in “Rear Window” (1954) and Orson Welles’ photo-come-to-life trick in “Citizen Kane” (1941).
Other directorial moments don’t work as well. When Mexican authorities break up an illegal cockfight, Eastwood simply steps behind a wooden crate. After a fade to black to show passage of time, he casually steps back out to see the coast is clear. Surely a 91-year-old man couldn’t hide from a police raid without them shouting, “Hey you, behind the crate!”
Still, there are graceful moments that remind us a veteran is in control: a Chevrolet parking amid fall leaves, a car passing horses to juxtapose modes of transportation, a cowboy hat silhouetted against a Mexican sunset, fire crackling at night between two characters, and a romantic slow dance within the swirling smoke of light beams through a bar window.
They’re flashes of Eastwood’s best westerns, painting the town red in “High Plains Drifter” (1973) or his horseman of the apocalypse in “Pale Rider” (1985). On its own, “Cry Macho” would barely be a blip on the radar of movie history, but taken as a potential final swan song to an iconic career in the genre, it’s an OK way to pass a few hours on HBO Max.
In the end, his character’s iconoclastic elegy sounds like Eastwood reflecting on his genre:
“This macho thing is overrated. People trying to be macho to show they’ve got grit. That’s about all they end up with. You sit there and let a bull step all over you and you let a horse throw you 50 feet in the air. … You think you’ve got all the answers, but then you get older and realize that you don’t have any of them. By the time you figure it out, it’s too late.”