Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s last Western as a star and as a director, came out when he was 62 years old. Though standards shifted considerably between Eastwood’s early career in the 1950s and this early ’90s comeback, it remained true that many of the big stars making movies during Eastwood’s younger years did not offer a model for busy senior citizen careers. When Cary Grant was 62, he retired from acting. When Jimmy Stewart was 62, he wasn’t completely done, but he started to slow down considerably. When John Wayne was 62, he won his Best Actor Oscar—and continued making movies for another seven years, bowing out around the age of 70, several years before his death. (His final film, co-starring Stewart, was directed by Eastwood’s Dirty Harry director and mentor, Don Siegel.) No one expected Eastwood to retire completely after Unforgiven; by the time it won its Oscars the spring after its release, the thriller In the Line of Fire was prepping for a summer release, with his self-directed A Perfect World following that fall. But Unforgiven, with its elegiac deconstruction of Western genre tropes (and its multiple scenes of an older, out-of-practice Eastwood failing to mount his horse!), certainly felt like the closing of a chapter—Eastwood’s Westerns, at least, were coming to an end.
Nearly 30 years later, Eastwood has retrieved his cowboy hat to make one more Western-themed sign-off with Cry Macho, where he plays a former rodeo guy sent to Mexico by his rich former employer (Dwight Yoakam), entrusted with the task of retrieving the rich man’s teenage son. Cry Macho is less mournful than Unforgiven, but it too feels like a goodbye. The truth is, every time Eastwood appears on screen these days, it’s easy to picture the movie in question as his final act.
That’s not strictly because of his physical frailty. Yes, he certainly moves slower and more delicately than he used to, and Cry Macho generates suspense just by having him try to climb back onto a wild horse before cutting, with a relief, to a stuntman-assisted wide shot. But he seems to be playing lower than his actual 91 years (not least because men living past age 90 was even more rare back in 1979, when the movie is set). He does so convincingly; there are plenty of 75-year-olds who would love to be as spry and energetic as Clint Eastwood, even the broken-down, non-movie-star version of him depicted here. No, Eastwood’s last few on-screen appearances have felt like a farewell because of the movies themselves. Cry Macho joins The Mule, Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven as another stop on the three-decade Eastwood goodbye tour. Even Trouble with the Curve felt a bit like a possible stopping point, mitigated only by our certainty that Eastwood would never let someone else direct his final performance—not even a trusted colleague like his longtime producer Robert Lorenz.
Eastwood’s long goodbye could have been clocked even earlier than Unforgiven. In 1992, he hadn’t made a Western in seven years and his previous entry in the genre, 1985’s Pale Rider, cast him as a mysterious stranger who (it becomes clear over the course of the movie) is some kind of avenging-angel figure. As a companion of sorts to High Plains Drifter, in the midst of an extended genre dry spell, it would have made a suitable curtain call. But Unforgiven gave him one last ride on an even darker and more barren landscape, with Eastwood playing William Munny, a former thief and cold-blooded killer who has been reformed by the love of a good woman. After her passing, Munny struggles to make ends meet as a hog farmer (in addition to grappling with his horse, Eastwood also lands face-down in the muck trying to wrangle some pigs), and, for the sake of his children, accepts one more job as a hired killer.
The whole movie is a series of cascading moral compromises. Munny has been hired to provide justice for a prostitute whose attackers have been let off easily in a transactional arrangement with a local sheriff (Gene Hackman). But their hired executions, while perhaps more frontier-style “just” than the light fines initially levied, are messy and upsetting. They also lead to the tortured death of Munny’s friend Ned (Morgan Freeman)—which in turn brings out the vengeful beast within Munny. Violence begets further violence; though plenty of folks are left standing at the end of Unforgiven, it does feel distinctly like the board has been cleared, with a body-strewn saloon and few people of consequence left to kill. Unlike Pale Rider, Unforgiven doesn’t end with Eastwood’s character riding off into the distance. Instead, it returns to a static, silhouetted shot of the Munny homestead, as onscreen text informs the audience that a subsequent visitor to the farm found it abandoned, and the family was rumored to have started over in California.
This understated disappearing act is echoed in Million Dollar Baby, with Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn never returning to the boxing gym after helping his surrogate daughter Maggie (Hilary Swank) end her own life. Like Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, and with Eastwood entering his mid-70s, it seemed conceivable that his movie-star persona might slip away, just as Frankie does.
And after Baby, Eastwood did take a break from acting—only four years, but longer than he’d typically gone without appearing in a movie. When he returned, in 2008’s Gran Torino, he leaned into his status as America’s oldest movie star, growling “get off my lawn” with a mix of sincerity and self-awareness. This time, the Eastwood character opts for a blaze of glory over a quiet disappearance, goading a dangerous gang into killing him so that they will be charged with murder and removed from a neighborhood (and sparing his young friend the costs of exacting his own revenge). Eastwood pretending to pull a gun but instead whipping out a harmless lighter is a neat little riff on his vigilante-friendly image. But there’s a touch of self-aggrandizement to this moment, too, with Eastwood taking on this fatal burden and even warbling the movie’s theme song over the credits, as the immigrants he’s befriended escape to a better life.
The Mule, an even stranger movie than Gran Torino, also makes its star vanity a bit more visible, with Eastwood playing Earl Stone, a horticulturist turned unexpected drug mule. Earl’s shortcomings as a father and an ex-husband are evident without the movie needing to provide the character with multiple threesomes as evidence of his self-indulgence. And yet it does, before winding its way toward Earl’s redemption, which leaves him reconciled with his family but nobly imprisoned after pleading guilty for his crimes. Both Gran Torino and The Mule suggest that maybe Eastwood isn’t that fond of slipping away, after all—that maybe fate will need to force his hand, and that his story will end on screen, in full view.
In a lot of ways, Cry Macho has less Eastwood finality than his other recent appearances. It maintains that elegiac tone we’ve come to expect from later Eastwood movies, especially those that are more character study than chronicle of recent or distant historical events. But it’s less of a rumination on regret, family or violence than the others, even as glimmers of those elements remain. As a sort-of Western, its milieu is a little closer to something like Bronco Billy or Honkytonk Man, with Eastwood’s Mike a rodeo lifer alluding to stubbornness and bad decisions in his past—not gunslinging violence. It gently reconfigures the image of a cowboy as someone who cooks, tends to animals and appreciates fresh air. In other words, the ideal cowboy is now someone further removed from toughness and being “macho,” as young Rafael (Eduardo Minett) puts it.
Still, like many of Eastwood’s other farewell pictures, Cry Macho strips his character of domestic comfort—here, Mike has long since lost his wife and child—and has him unexpectedly confronting late-in-life loneliness by befriending a younger person. (Eastwood’s series of younger mentees is like a genteel version of the ongoing Dirty Harry shtick of him bristling at another new partner who inevitably winds up dead.) Rafael becomes the new Clint Sidekick with only a little bit of fuss, and the attempts to gin up a little third-act conflict between them are so half-assed that they become downright confusing. (In his late period, Eastwood can make some of the simplest tasks seem alien as he attempts to push through them and focus on what he’s really interested in, exacerbating his shoot-the-rough-draft-in-one-take qualities. The expositional dialogue between himself and Dwight Yoakam is the biggest offender here.) The material has been kicking long enough for novelist N. Richard Nash to share a co-writing credit for adapting his book despite being dead for 20 years, and the movie’s low-key sweetness at times recalls character studies out of the era in which it’s set.
Despite some obligatory and amusing cracks about Eastwood’s advancing years, though, the movie isn’t especially attuned to the realities of aging. Nothing about Cry Macho requires Eastwood to perform this role in his nineties—but then, what movie does ever require that of a leading man? Eastwood is in truly unprecedented territory as a movie star; consider how few actors have remained in leading roles even into their 70s and 80s. This makes Cry Macho a fascinating hybrid of the Eastwoodian regret that makes up at least half of his career at this point (with lines like “by the time you figure it out, it’s too late” and “I don’t know how to cure old”), and steadfast refusal to admit that Mike is probably too elderly to entice a woman like Marta (Natalia Traven), who is both a kindly grandmother and seemingly around three decades Mike’s junior. (Or at least, Eastwood’s junior; again, Mike’s age is never given.) The movie is less grandiose about Eastwood’s redemptive sacrifices than Torino or The Mule, but it can’t bring itself to leave the end of his story as an ellipsis, narrated by someone else, the way Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby do.
Cry Macho alternately emanates retirement vibes and fights them off. With three decades of distance between this and the last time he made One Last Western, the movie feels like a distant yet lilting echo, a postscript on a faded genre. Eastwood comes by this sensibility honestly, remaining in tune with the way the past recedes from the present while lingering in memory; no wonder he’s made so many minor-key histories late in his career. Even when he can’t resist putting himself back in the spotlight, his favored themes are too resonant throughout his body of work to charge him with milking his stardom for encore after encore. At the same time, with so many elegant career endings over these past three decades, Cry Macho also feels like a final admission that his previous goodbyes couldn’t bring themselves to make: That despite his age, despite all the retirement cues, Clint Eastwood isn’t damn well going anywhere.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.