There’s a lot said about Clint Eastwood’s late movies lack of polish. Just think about the many jokes about American Sniper’s baby doll. The director reinforces this idea with how his reputation of often only doing one take through most of his shootings has become central for his own mythology. Clint Eastwood shoots fast and carelessly, it is often said. It is an idea that goes in the opposite direction of that other essential Eastwood as an auteur myth: Hollywood’s last classicist, heir and caretaker of great lost tradition. He is at the same time the last pro and a rushed amateur. None of these images are as representative as they seem, but their contradiction animates a plenty of what gives this Cry Macho power.
For Eastwood’s detractors, Cry Macho offers plenty of fuel. He never cared much for scenes that were there to just keep the movie going, if something is there just to serve the plot and don’t animate him much, it is better to toss it off without Much effort until the moments that matter arrive and the opening two minutes of this one until the former rider meets the boy je shares time for most of the movie are very awkward, a concentrated shot of this tendency through a series of bureaucratic expositive scenes. Dwight Yoakam and Fernanda Urrejola have a couple of scenes each with Eastwood in which they vomit information while barely really sharing their scenes. The insults are supposedly trying to cover for the infodump, but just reinforce how poor their drama remains. Those are scenes that explain the plot (Eastwood as a former cowboy whose old boss asks him to extract his son from Mexico to pay an old debt) without bringing with them any engagement. This just highlights how Cry Macho has very little actual narrative preoccupations. Eastwood and the boy are technically hunted and must hide, but beyond those opening and later closing scenes, the movie has no rush or great preoccupations with any of that. The action becomes a mere excuse for a trip to Mexico and for a 90-year-old man to share a few things with a teenager.
It is also a movie not worried with any notion of realism or plausibility. Cry Macho is a project whom Eastwood has been occasionally linked since the mid 1980s (he first thought of directing Robert Mitchum in the main role to put things in clear context) and despite bringing Nick Schenk (who previous wrote Gran Torino and The Mule for him) to update N. Richard Nash original script from the early 1980s little or no effort was given to justify the presence of a 90-year-old man in the middle of the action, actually in the first of Yoakam expository scenes, Eastwood is fired for not doing his job at the farm as well anymore, which sets up the question of how old is he supposed to be in the movie’s diegesis. Based on the Hollywood writers guild rules, Schenk rewrites needed to be very extensive to justify getting on screen credit and I imagine his work involved writing out most of the actual action from it. Cry Macho has as many scenes with Eastwood taking naps as moments he gets involved with some confrontation.
The main consequence is that Cry Macho doesn’t seem like a movie out of Hollywood. It is a non-naturalist movie drained of incident that contemplates an old man in foreign territory. Its images are disarming by how direct they are. A good deal of it is taken by scenes of daily actions and work with animals. Its third character with the most screen time is a rooster. To push it further a good chunk of it is in non-subtitled Spanish with the boy serving as translator between Eastwood and everyone around him. It is a movie about the importance of life’s little pleasues that tries the least mediating possible representation for them. Indeed, the movie that Cry Macho made me think the most was Cristopher Columbus- The Enigma which Manoel de Oliveira directed and starred in at 98 years old in 2007. In it, the plot about Oliveira’s character obsession in proving Columbus was Portuguese was secondary to putting himself on screen (along with his wife Maria Isabel), fiction near disappearing in a series of tasks and interactions by the Oliveira couple. Even some of the Portuguese filmmaker enthusiasts hate Columbus, its central thesis is preposterous, and the movie is more interested in those little moments than giving it much force. It is likely minor Oliveira, but it is touching in its descriptive passages. Oliveira, who was a race driver in his Youth even gets to drive on screen as Eastwood gets to drive a horse again in Cry Macho.
Lots have been written about Cry Macho as a movie for fans and that is not exactly wrong, but that’s because its meanings are derived from his on-screen presence. Cry Macho would make no sense without Clint Eastwood, American cinema myth at 90 at the middle of its action. Early this year, Liam Neeson starred in a movie called The Marksman directed by Robert Lorenz, Eastwood’s longtime producer and assistant, that had pretty much the same plot as Cry Macho with Neeson as an old rancher that becomes protector of a Mexican boy hunted by the local mob. It is a more conventional action movie, but it is above all else a movie with Liam Neeson instead of Eastwood, with its meaning reduced to its immediate action, just the hundredth variation on Cassavetes’ Gloria without anything standing out.
Cry Macho replaces proper events for an invitation to a dialogue about what the image project by its star/auteur suggests – the obvious reference point would’ve been Chaplin’s Limelight. For instance, when he and the boy take refuge in a church and he remembers his dead wife and son crying, the moment exists in dialogue with a history of images and one is invited to observe the vulnerability of the moment. Eastwood stayed the first three decades of his directing career often returning to his screen image, a deconstruction that is also very narcissistic, often by way of exposing his limitations and on this one he gets a lot out of his physical frailty. There’s only three Years between Cry Macho and The Mule, but his tired body seems to have aged a lot more and the movie despite its lightness gets a lot out of it and from the distance between what the writing asks for and what the body reveals.
It is the movie’s great paradox, if in all its radical stripped-down quality is the least Hollywoodian movie out of American mainstream cinema of the past few years, its meanings are inseparable from a whole history of American popular film. Eastwood is its beginning and end, and it is very self-conscious about being a film only possible from someone with enough power in the industry to allow its hollowing process to take place. It is also worth pointing out that like for instance David Lynch’s The Straight Story, it happens to be a very populist film when one accepts it just doesn’t movie by pre-established Hollywood rules. Those are complexities that exist throughout Eastwood’s filmography exposed on this one in a very direct manner.
A good part of the movie is structured the same way: the boy, usually with the rooster at hand makes some observation reaffirming an image of masculinity (starting with the idea of calling his rooster macho) and the old man answers by trying to undercut and replace it with attempting to get closer to nature and embrace of heartiness like when he makes a point og how cowboy’s self-sufficiency comes from cooking. It is a didactic construction that breathes because the teacher has the weight of some 65 years of roles as this idealized and celebrated action cowboy. Put Neeson in Eastwood’s place and everything would turn mechanical, but the past associations give a different weight to this self-interrogation. In a similar way the movie most quoted lines – “I don’t know how to cure old”, “this macho thing is overrated” – are clear breaks of the fourth wall, less important for what they mean in the movie’s diegesis, but as the filmmaker speaking openly with his audience.
Cry Macho brings to mind the Other two movies Schenk wrote for the director, They form a sort of loose trilogy of coming to terms with a whole life and career of an artist who was allowed to keep filming much later than most of his peers, but if Gran Torino is a final twilight for Eastwood as an icon and The Mule is a fictional confession of past sins and failures, the new movie seems to make use of those associations with an image and long life for a final direct address. It is a liberated film, a rare moment in which aging is treated as a gift.
The lack of the filmmaker’s usual fatalism also takes me by surprise. My two favorite Eastwoods, Honkytonk Man and A perfect World are also road movies with an old man playing father figure for a boy, in both, those men are presented as happens a lot in his movies as a kind of ghosts, figures condemned to die as soon as they run out of don’t have more wisdom to offer. Cry Macho synopsis promises more of the same, but the movie takes the opposite movement, the usual damnation leaves the scene, and the old cowboy is allowed to embody his own worlds and live the little time he must have left. The movie doesn’t fully leave some typical Eastwoodian tics behind but offer them an unusual tenderness. It is clear that beyond his dead family, this is a man who likes horses more than people, filmmaker Eastwood can’t be described as a simple misanthrope, but the typical Eastwoodian character often is.
A lot of those relationships are observed through how the film imagines México. There’s something very symbolic, it is a suspended place in direct contact with the film stripped down quality, in which things are taken for what they are. A little idealized, the only character that registers strongly through the film beyond the old cowboy is the widow that takes them in played by Natalia Traven and she is there less as character than an idea of quiet well lived existence. The movie gains in power during the action block when they stay with Traven. It is not quite an idyll because there’s far too many secrets and paranoia suggesting a movie must eventually return, but it is a very specific and surprising pastoral for both its filmmaker and current American cinema. It is interesting to observe that the old cowboy and the boy don’t just hide, but work. Eastwood does all sorts of tasks to justify his safe haven at Traven’s place, tames wild horses and in what turns out to be the film’s most enchanting development becomes sort of the city’s informal veterinarian. It is a very strong take at a utopia, and another spin on his preference for community over family. The idea of man out of place is underlined by the constant use of translation, but the language barrier reinforces the movie utopian desires. If Gran Torino was a film taken by the weight of the past (Eastwood’s presence as a big return of the second half of the 20th century), and The Mule is one predicted at absence (a man who never existed for his family becomes a man who doesn’t exist for the police), Cry Macho surprises for how well rounded it is as this last breath of the present. Another sign that we are at a utopian suspension, the previous film’s duality was predicted at strong racial tension and while the weight of the border for North American imagination remains strong in the subtext, the action reduces the subject to a few observations. Speaking of symbols, the last image of what is likely the last film of the most enduring post studio system Hollywood cinema presence, is Clint Eastwood opting for not crossing the border again but to allow himself to disappear not into the ghostly damnation he is used to, but to a return to this small-town Mexico pastoral.