Cry Macho shows an ambivalence towards traditional masculinity

Clint Eastwood’s western is an uneven portrait of a faded rodeo champion, but its “soft-pedalled life lessons” are worth hearing.

Clint Eastwood as Mike Milo in Cry Macho
Clint Eastwood as Mike Milo in Cry Macho Courtesy of Warner Bros

Cry Macho is in UK cinemas now. 

Regardless of what he may have intended in White Hunter Black Heart (1990), Clint Eastwood’s neo-Brechtian, autocritical lead performance – Eastwood playing Eastwood imitating John Huston – remains one of his more telling gestures. It evokes Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe exploring the darker sides of their own charisma as Henri Verdoux and Lorelei Lee, though Eastwood’s minimalism gives him far less to work with (or critique). He musters even less at age 91 as Cry Macho’s Mike Milo, ex-rodeo saddle tramp, a much older, lamer version of Robert Mitchum’s Jeff McCloud in The Lusty Men (1952), mauled by horses, bulls, and drugs and booze to kill the pain of their having landed on top of him.

Kidnapping 13-year-old Rafo in Mexico City from his abusive Mexican mother for his former boss, Rafo’s wealthy father, and driving the boy back to Texas, Milo finds redemption by hanging out with friendlier Mexicans and animals in the boondocks. There, he regains traces of the family life he once had, tames wild horses while showing Rafo how to ride them, and advises locals how to care for their ailing animals, enjoying a warm community.

Eastwood’s no Charlie Chaplin, yet one can still say that he comes closer to the plain-talking directness of Chaplin’s A King in New York (1957) than his A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), as misjudged as Eastwood’s dialogue with an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention. More plausibly, nine years later, he’s responding not to Barack Obama but to Donald Trump. It’s hard to ignore the affection aired here for Mexico and Mexicans, country folk versus tycoons, for bonding with animals and sleeping outdoors, not to mention a disdain for xenophobia and scepticism about macho positioning and capitalist investments. In contradistinction to Trump’s mockery of the disabled, Milo even communicates by sign language with a widow’s deaf granddaughter. In short, one might wonder if this one-time mayor of Carmel, California, is joining the ever-expanding ranks of anti-Trump Republicans yearning for a more civilised country (in this case, Mexico).

Though there are clumsy exposition, unconvincing plot twists, uneven acting and other technical gaucheries, some of these hardly matter. (Not all of them: Rafo is insufficiently fleshed out in both script and performance, and Milo’s lost wife and son only merit a belated blip in the dialogue.) By now, Eastwood has earned a complicity with his audience that can sail past some imperfections.

Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho (2021)
Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho (2021)Courtesy of Warner Bros

This isn’t the first time he’s addressed the present in a period plot (mostly set in 1980): it was hard not to view Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006) as commentary on recent US military exploits. Cry Macho – from a script that had been kicked around Hollywood for decades, recently revised for Eastwood – can’t resist making its two leading ladies smitten with Milo as a sexual or romantic partner, which would have been more palatable a few decades back. Yet despite Milo’s claim to Rafo that “the macho thing is overrated,” Eastwood is not yet ready to throw out his own macho with the bath water, even adding a celebratory cock-crow to his director-producer credit at the end.

‘Macho’ is the name Rafo gives his cockfighting rooster, a fair enough stand-in for Eastwood’s younger persona. The very title Cry Macho expresses the older Eastwood’s ambivalence about macho, seen now more as boyish plea than meaningful acquisition. Like his hero, he’s not so much a cowboy as a faded, fragile remnant of cowboy myth who’d rather settle down peacefully than engage in slugfests. The obligatory action interludes, furnished by Mexican cops or henchmen sent by Rafo’s mother to impede the journey to Texas, mostly register as interruptions – rather like the Dirty Harry romps dutifully delivered by Eastwood to finance his art movies; at least the landscapes are attractive.

Not a major Eastwood picture, Cry Macho is still an agreeable one, especially in the way it periodically seems to forget its own plot in order to dispense its soft-pedalled life lessons. How agreeable it is depends on how much one believes the lessons.