An Ancient Cowboy’s Drama-Free Fantasy Creaks to Life in Cry Macho

Movies Reviews Clint Eastwood
An Ancient Cowboy’s Drama-Free Fantasy Creaks to Life in Cry Macho

Welcome to Clint Eastwood’s fantasy world. Cry Macho is an extended dream sequence, where the nonagenarian director/actor strikes fear into the hearts of burly leather-clad henchmen with a single jab; where his man-of-few-words charms get goo-goo eyes from every beautiful woman he meets; where a willing disciple awaits, ready to receive bloody wisdom squeezed from a stony life. Eastwood’s been riding off into the sunset for decades now, and Cry Macho’s creaky, lackadaisical hat-wave is a feature-length parody of a golden oldie.

Very, very loosely based on N. Richard Nash’s 1975 screenplay-turned-novel (thankfully nobody gets raped by a horse in this version of Cry Macho), Eastwood’s film is as wholesome PG-13 as it comes. Adapted by Nash and Nick Schenk (Gran Torino, The Mule), completing a trilogy of films that so spoke to Eastwood that he starred in and directed them, Cry Macho keeps the basic premise of the book and glimpses of its melodrama—but none of the intensity or specificity that would allow it to say much of merit about masculinity. That’s not to say that there needs to be violence, sexual or otherwise, to make the point Cry Macho vaguely grunts at, but here there are no consequences from or evidence of why “macho” and all it implies is unhealthy. Instead, we simply get Mike (Eastwood)—an ex-rodeo star who’s lost his family, his abilities and his job—sent down Mexico way to retrieve his boss’s estranged teenage son Rafo (Eduardo Minett). It probably makes more sense in the book, where Mike is not 91, to send him on this mission.

His boss is played by Dwight Yoakam, who, stuck with the unenviable expository role, gives his best Neil Breen. Pretty much everyone in the movie hands over their lines like they’re surrendering them after a brief glance at the script, but Yoakam’s got a particularly alien affect. After this strange tone is set, silliness pops up often: Mike oh-so-slowly ambles behind some crates to (successfully!) hide from the Federales; Mike is told he’s obviously dressed like a gringo as an extra walks behind him wearing the exact same outfit; Mike swears at some cops for so long it’s almost like Judd Apatow kept the camera rolling; Mike delivers Rafo’s mother the coldest, funniest reception to a seduction attempt I’ve ever seen. The movie wants to use familiar neo-Western and surrogate father-son plot situations, but between the stretches of logic and audience imagination required by doubling its main character’s age and the stiffness with which everything is filmed and performed, it all comes off like sketch comedy constructed to intentionally point out the absurdity.

It only gets worse once he picks up Rafo. At least when Eastwood’s by himself, he and director of photography Ben Davis frame the actor in silhouette to generate a couple of potent shots. It’s here that the iconography most clearly transcends its specific narrative. A cowboy hat set against dry mountains, against a moonless night, against a determined face at once so familiar and so changed—these few images have more to say about Eastwood’s long legacy than the rest of the film. Saddled with Minett, a tepid TV actor making the jump to the big screen, and his cutesy routine (a double act between his puppyish “bad” boy and comic relief cockfighting rooster Macho), the dynamic is cloying rather than fatherly. Relationship growth happens because the characters say so: Mike literally says that Rafo is growing on him, seemingly timed to nothing but the clicking of a stopwatch.

It’s as the pair drive to the Texas border that the film gets interesting. Not good, as there’s still no real drama or character work or beauty, but with something to think about, at least. They’re waylaid in a small town, which could be mistaken for Eastwood’s cowboy heaven. It’s a fantasy for old white men, finding somewhere to run off to. Not somewhere where they find things they love or need, but a mystical, exotic place that’s otherwise idyllic—except that it needs them. A place that only requires you to fix a car or ride a horse, or look at an animal and say, “Yep, it got bit by a dog” and have everyone in town think you’re some sort of gringo veterinary genius. A place where you always have a translator (Rafo, long since done trying to be a character), and don’t have to have conversations longer than “What’d she say? … Tell her ‘thank you.’” A strong-and-silent nirvana for effortless mediocrity.

It’s all pretty embarrassing and too languid to even be that derisive towards. Cry Macho seems to drift off for a nap as often as Mike—not to mention that any time a villain half-heartedly pops up, he’s hilariously impotent—and any complaints feel like punching down at a beloved if misguided relative. It’s even worse, because Eastwood’s the best part of the film. He can still growl a pithy piece of sandpaper or deliver a pained speech—with one sequence shot so only his quivering lips are visible beneath his hat—all in service of so little. Attempts at passing torches or teaching lessons fizzle. A cock’s name is Macho and that’s where any interrogation begins and ends. Mike’s Mexican Arcady asks less than nothing of him, let alone change or introspection, and its idealized glow is overwhelming.

Cry Macho can often be sadly, strangely funny. It can also feel like watching a shadow so used to its body’s motions that it performs emptily on its own. It’s inept and recognizable, exhausting and depressing and still able to spark a bit of genuine affection from sheer association. It is a bad movie, one that panders and wallows and pretends. But in its oddity, it can be revealing—maybe in specific about its filmmaker, but definitely in general about certain white American men of a particular generation—something that has worth even if those revelations are unflattering and unambitious. The long tail-end of Clint Eastwood’s legend didn’t need this facile, drama-free Western, but its sepia contributes color nonetheless.

Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Nick Schenk, N. Richard Nash
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Eduardo Minett, Natalia Traven, Dwight Yoakam, Fernanda Urrejola, Horacio Garcia-Rojas
Release Date: September 17, 2021 (HBO Max)

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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