Clint Eastwood’s latest boasts a strong central performance in a grand step up from his recent works despite its rocky script.
The country soundtrack kicks in. The plain, honey-coated lens flairs coat the screen. A truck parks and out steps Mike Milo (Clint Eastwood), met with the distance of his once-good friend Howard (Dwight Yoakam) who, like a soda machine someone’s kicked loose, dispenses copious exposition about Mike’s past. The man was a great rodeo rider before dabbling in pills and drink, and, according to his old pal, his rising age doesn’t help either. Howard wants fresh blood, but it seems the movie doesn’t. The delivery, the detachment, Yoakam’s thoroughly disinterested performance—the film borders on worrying at first.
It’s then that Howard makes Mike an offer: to retrieve his only son, Rafo (Eduardo Minett), from living with his mother in Mexico back to Texas. For Mike, the proposed cash reward is enough of a draw. In terms of propelling the plot, it’s a shorthand too brief to give way to any real sense of motivate. And yet, despite its first 15 minutes, Cry Macho comes out the other end having worked. It’s not a soaring success but a modest one, with Eastwood’s work as actor and director respectively grounding and elevating the material. As for whenever the plot feels the need to propel itself forward? That’s usually when things start to sputter.
That being the case, the crucial nature of Eastwood’s hand makes sense. This sort of tale, adapted by Nick Schenk and N. Richard Nash from the latter’s novel, is some of the material he’s most poised in regards to. Mike goes to Mexico and finds Rafo (and his prized rooster, Macho), yet the relationship is more stilted than begrudging. Then, as the two get stuck and wander through a series of adjacent villages, it gets softer. It grows because it comes to involve those they come across and, just as importantly, those they get farther from.
With that in mind, Cry Macho is a film that relies on its quieter moments. They’re the points when the script and direction work in unison. The pacing aligns; conservations, relationships, and looks from one to another let the movie breathe. Supporting players, namely Natalia Traven as the widowed Marta, get more to do because they’re allowed to do less. All the while, Eastwood damn near directs the movie through his onscreen work. He maintains his ability to shift his face between grizzled to glowing, but it’s how he paces the performance that lets it stand as effectively as it does.
Mike’s demeanor in a given scene is almost always a full scene delayed. He’s an old dog processing things on his own time, and it’s a crucial part of his insularity that Eastwood tunes across the film’s back half. Frankly, this specific sort of character work is frankly what pushes the film beyond what could have otherwise been equally serviceable and forgettable. In the context of his filmmaking oeuvre, this particular offering doesn’t have the shifting or densely layered pathos akin to The Gauntlet. It also doesn’t have the larger cultural context of something like what may be its closest ancestor, Honkytonk Man.
It’s not a soaring success but a modest one.
Beyond a corner of the script that flirts with the concept of cultural identity, Schenk and Nash don’t provide a ton of substance here. The discussions between Mike and Rafo about what it is to be macho, and the myopia that comes with it, itself borders on opaque. The most provocative approach here is that of displacing traditional masculinity from the very discussion of what it means to be a good man. That said, pulls its punches, salvaged partially by Eastwood’s delivery of these sentiments.
Still, Eastwood plants these seeds and lets them grow, at least more than they would have otherwise. Divorced from his onscreen work, his direction isn’t the most varied; for some, it may not even be particularly engaging. But it works because it’s specific, the onscreen activity begetting the camerawork whether halted or handheld. He focuses on the faces, a welcome emotional center for a film that fails to focus much on space or place. He lends irony to the script’s more formulaic structuring choices, a decision not entirely successful but helpful nonetheless. Perhaps that’s all fitting given whom it follows. Perhaps this is the movie for Mike as a character, even if it doesn’t all work in execution.
Cry Macho rides into theaters and onto HBO Max this Friday, September 17.