Clint Eastwood is a lot of things, but the persona I will always associate with him is that of the gritty, hardened “man.” He personifies the word “Macho,” that testosterone-fueled word that creates an expectation and tension everywhere it is uttered. It can be used as a descriptive word, but it’s also both an insult and a compliment. In a world where white, male privilege is being revealed as a gaslighting powerplay…Eastwood decided to tenderly lean into that.
Mike Milo (Clint Eastwood) is a grizzled old ranch hand and former rodeo star. His fall from grace is only vaguely mentioned, at least for most of the film’s runtime, but newspaper clippings and his former boss, cock-of-the-walk Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam), reference both pills and booze as contributing factors. A year after firing Mike, Howard shows up to ask that he slip down to Mexico and liberate his wayward son, Rafo (Eduardo Minett), from his former fling Leta (Fernanda Urrejola). Mike will struggle against federales, Leta, Howard’s true motives, and the judgement of a rooster named “Macho” as he tries to bring the boy from his abusive mother to his shady father.
Clint Eastwood fans will feel at home as they witness him in his glory, but while the film has been trotted out as a genre thriller it is more of a quiet character study. Sure, the cowboy hat and boots are back, but at 91 years of age the cowboy is no longer breaking horses (despite a hilarious scene where an obvious stunt double tries to convince us that our cowboy can still do so). Eastwood is leaning into his age, though perhaps he’s waited a bit too long to tackle N. Richard Nash’s 1975 novel. He first considered starring as the lead at the ripe old age of 58, but decided he wasn’t old enough and Hollywood moved on. The star has come full circle, but his insistence on convincing us that he’s still the icon while taking the piss out of it leaves me more concerned for his age than the message he’s delivering. He still retains his trademark whisper, the danger in his figure hidden behind a voice that sounds like it’s been gargling gravel for over 70 years, but the masquerade is meaningful this time.
The real joys in Eastwood’s latest are found in the quiet moments, all after he’s picked Rafo and Macho up from a cockfight in Mexico City and dodged the boy’s overtly horny mother (I’m not sure she has many traits beyond this, but the film throws a couple other vices at us just to be safe). They settle in a quiet village for car repair, and before long Mike is breaking wild horses with one hand and examining the village livestock with the other. The local diner is a hub of activity, and it’s beautiful and aged owner Marta (Natalia Traven) develops the hots for Mike as he fries her chicken and helps with her grandchildren. Rafo, on the other hand, is slowly being seduced away from the glitz and glamor of his wealthy father’s ranch by the idea of this peaceful life with his newfound father-figure. Nothing lasts, but these connections are tempting for the boy. As Mike says, he needs to “…watch that ‘macho’ crap up there [Texas] too, no one really likes that stuff.”
That’s the real win for Eastwood here. Making a film about a child that represents the best and worst of Gen Z while the nonagenarian struggles to feel meaningful is bold, sad, and fragile, but the guy pulls it off. The script is painfully blunt and silly, but Eastwood has always been a minimal and straightforward director. Not everything about Cry Macho works, but when it hits the highs are an absolute dream. Even the sweet acknowledgement of the aggressive younger generation feels heartfelt, with Mike telling Rafo, “If you want to name your cock Macho, that’s okay by me.” None of it is condescending, cruel, or angry. Instead it’s just a man in the final years of his life, looking to show love to the fans and career that made him. We’re 17 years from Million Dollar Baby, where Eastwood began making every film as though it were a goodbye, but this is the first one that’s truly made me feel like he might be ready to hang up the hat.
Cry Macho is in theatres and is streaming on HBO Max until October 17th.