'Cry Macho' Is Clint Eastwood’s Sweetest Swansong Yet [Review]

For over two decades, it’s felt as if Clint Eastwood has been saying goodbye. Starting with “Unforgiven,” a film that could almost be seen as the last western, he’s spent the better part of his late period ruminating on his place in all of this. “Unforgiven” saw Eastwood saddling up on the horse one (almost) final time. “Blood Work” and “Gran Torino” felt like trips down “Dirty Harry” way, aged men of authority doling out justice one last time. “The Mule” tied it all together into perhaps his most somber affair, a man so committed to his passion that by the time he sat down to breathe it all in, there was no air left to go around. Each of these films are of a piece with one another, Eastwood examining the effects of his career on himself and those he loved. A hero’s final stand(s) moving into that hero, looking back and questioning if the violence (i.e., the work) was all worth it. As he rambles into his ninth decade alive and his seventh in this business, the anger, regret, and flights of heroism seem to have subsided. In their place is a feeling of inner peace in the form of the lovely “Cry Macho.”

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We find our hero, an elderly rodeo star Mike Milo, being fired from his job. Too old, too washed up, and no longer dependable, his boss Howard (Dwight Yoakam) has had enough. Howard isn’t totally without use for old Mike, however. His 13-year-old son is in Mexico with his mother, and Howard thinks he’s being abused. Thinking Mike’s visage, a weathered cowboy, will impress the cool-obsessed boy enough to come back to the states with him, Howard sends Mike to retrieve his son. It’s a premise almost too silly to work, a nonagenarian going across the border in the hopes that his image is “cool” enough, but in Eastwood’s world of black and white, good vs. evil, it feels exactly right. Meeting the boy fairly quickly, Mike’s imposing, if tired, figure impresses precisely the way it should, and the two embark (with rooster Macho in tow) back to America. 

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Light on tension, heavy on sentiment, “Cry Macho” is a delightfully quiet sojourn for two unlikely allies. Mike, all washed up with no one left, sees a bit of himself in the boy, Rafo (Eduardo Minett). Brash, reckless, and prioritizing all the wrong things, Rafo is lost. His mother throws lavish parties in her mansion, ostensibly ignoring a son she feels has gone off the rails into crime. His father, who may have ulterior motives for wanting his son to return, abandoned him early in life, leaving him and his mother to fend for themselves. Rafo has no guiding light in a life that he lives far too closely on the edge for someone his age. Having done the same and winding up alone after tragedy, Mike sees Rafo as someone he can steer back on track with just a little bit of nudging. In turn, Rafo works as a familial surrogate to Mike, something he hasn’t had in many, many years. There’s a sweet, cool uncle/enamored nephew-like chemistry between the two men. One is facing the last years of his life, the other only just beginning. Unlikely leads for a film that intermittently threatens to dip into violence.

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That’s one of the remarkable hands Eastwood plays here. Threats of violence either happen in the periphery or are quelled so quickly that you almost wonder if they ever happened. Mike isn’t another Eastwood good guy out to inflict some justice. We’ve said goodbye to that Clint too many times. No, Mike is a man who’s made peace with his past and himself. His last ride isn’t towards a grave but perhaps a happiness that’s been missing for some time. That happiness comes in the form of Marta (Natalia Trava), a woman the pair seek shelter within a small Mexican town. It wouldn’t be late-period Eastwood if our guy didn’t develop a romance with a woman quite a bit younger than him. Here it provides some of the sweetest, most tender moments of the film and Eastwood’s career. Two people who don’t really understand one another verbally but find solace in each other’s presence nonetheless. Each a warm embrace that neither thought they’d feel again. 

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The non-verbal aspect of their relationship speaks to the film’s strength on a macro level. In letting this be a quiet, meditative study, Eastwood allows himself to do what he does best and observe, his trademark steely blues taking in the world around him. As Mike sees, you see, and you develop a sort of rapport with him, breathing in the lush surroundings (surroundings shot by Marvel’s current in-house DP Ben Davis doing the best work of his career) and exhaling together. Eastwood is maybe the preeminent “eye” actor, and we’re treated to some of his very best work. In finding a home in Marta and a genuine friendship with the young Rafo, his eyes glisten and shimmer with an overpowering sense of peace. They alight with the kind of peace one only obtains after nine decades of endless hopes, dreams, loves, and heartbreak, and to see him this way is overwhelming. A standout moment in the film, and perhaps one in his entire career, is Mike recalling to Rafo what happened to his wife and daughter. Lying in a church pew, cowboy hat lowered over his face, a single tear rolling down his cheek, recounts the sad story. Yes, it’s the title made manifest, and it’s one of the single most indelible images in a career overflowing with them.

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Eduardo Minett’s Rafo is a performance that initially takes you off guard. He’s so stilted and over-the-top that for a few minutes, you think he’s going to tank the film. Next to Eastwood’s assured presence, it almost feels like parody. Therein lies the trick and the piece of the puzzle that ties it all together. Minett, a young actor making his English-language debut, likely isn’t doing this intentionally, but his performance feels so much like a critical performance. He’s performing what he thinks masculinity should be against a guy who’s seen and done it all and knows when to call bullshit. As he bonds with Mike, he too becomes quieter, more observational.  It’s one of the few times a performance that glaring ends up working, and it’s because, in the steady, unfussy hands of Eastwood, you just have to ride it out and let it happen. As it does, you find two lost souls slowly embracing the idea that being alone isn’t all it’s cracked up to. That maybe there’s a common ground somewhere between stoic solitude and abrasive masculinity. 

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“Cry Macho” isn’t treading new territory for Eastwood on its surface, and in many ways, it feels like he’s playing the hits; gorgeous tableaus of Eastwood against a sunset, the hero growling at an enemy, gun in hand. Familiar themes and ideas explored again and again. But when you dig a little deeper, you find a cowboy, a star, and a filmmaker filled not with regret but with happiness. He’s done all there is to do, seen all there is to see. He’s as vital and alive as any 91-year-old, so the idea of him slowing down seems silly, but after years spent examining himself, it’s refreshing to see him find a peace of sorts. The weight of life is still very much on his shoulders, just a little lighter, a little freer. Clint may be playing the hits in “Cry Macho,” but boy, are the notes lovelier than ever. [A-]