Cry Macho is the 39th feature film directed by Clint Eastwood, coming almost exactly 50 years after he made his directorial debut in 1971 with Play Misty for Me. It’s also Eastwood’s first time onscreen since 2018’s The Mule, which he also directed; he did not appear in his last effort behind the camera, 2019’s Richard Jewell. We mention all this simply because those last two films were far superior to this one, so it’s difficult to say if Cry Macho represents a decline in the 91-year-old filmmaker’s abilities or is just a more casually produced effort than those last efforts.
Which is not to say that Cry Macho doesn’t have heart; it does, almost too much of it, with the movie’s uneven script and performances treading dangerously close to contrived sentimentality. But the movie’s slack pacing and overall low stakes vibe prevent the characters from truly earning the emotional moments we’re clearly supposed to respond to, leaving this an intermittently entertaining but rather superficial affair.
Eastwood stars as Mike Milo, a one-time rodeo star and top horse trainer whose life and career have taken a severe downturn over the decades thanks to personal tragedy, alcohol addiction, and physical injury. It’s 1979 and not long after he’s fired by his longtime employer, ranch and rodeo owner Howard Polk (a stiff, awkward Dwight Yoakam Jr.), Polk summons Mike back and offers him a new job: to retrieve Polk’s teenage son Rafo (Eduardo Minett) from Mexico, where he lives with his mother in a possibly abusive situation.
Polk has other reasons for retrieving Rafo besides just wanting the boy to live with him, and it’s kind of mystifying why he thinks the elderly Mike is the man to enter Mexico City and essentially kidnap his son—but that’s just one of many questions that the script papers over. Mike needs the job, so he heads down to Mexico in his pickup truck and finds Rafo, who is initially reluctant to go with him but decides to slip away from his hotel owner mom Leta (Fernanda Urrejola, veering between shrewish, whorish, and “crazy” in another thankless female role in an Eastwood film) by hiding in Mike’s back seat.
Because Leta has some goons and paid-off federales looking for them, Mike and Rafo can’t make a straight line back to the border, so they take the back roads. And it’s there where Mike, Rafo, and, yes, Rafo’s fighting rooster named Macho begin to form a bond. It’s also on those back roads where Mike will find the beginnings of what could be a whole new life for himself once the boy is returned.
In one sense, Cry Macho—like Unforgiven, Eastwood’s 1992 Western masterpiece and the last time he rode a horse onscreen—turns a typical Eastwood character on its head. Mike Milo is supposed to be the kind of iconic tough guy who can get the job done, whatever that job is, but the truth is that he’s old, bitter, tired, and tormented by the losses and bad breaks that life has dealt him, self-inflicted or otherwise.
Eastwood, who was first offered the script some 33 years ago but passed because he thought he was too young at the time, does a good job portraying this with his bent, thin frame, grizzled features, and rasp of a voice (we even see a tear or two trickle down that wizened cheek). He’s also believable when he dismisses Rafo’s constant talk of what it’s like to be macho: “The macho thing is overrated,” Eastwood says at one point. “People try to be macho, just to show people they’ve got grit.”
He’s right, but that credo is never really put to the test. The movie ambles along in episodic fashion as Mike and Rafo progress from one encounter to another (even taking the long way, it’s also kind of unclear why it takes them weeks to get back to Texas), and every time they find themselves in a spot of danger, it’s resolved almost too easily.
Their journey never has any urgency to it, and they find time to camp for a few weeks in the back room of a café run by the sweet-natured yet no-nonsense Marta (Natalia Traven), a luminous woman who runs her business, looks after her four orphaned granddaughters, helps Mike and Rafo hide out, and even manages to strike up an improbable romance with Mike, who finds work as both a horse trainer for a local owner and a sort of animal whisperer for the townspeople and their pets.
Unfortunately, the screenplay by Nick Schenk and N. Richard Nash, who wrote the novel on which this was based, never makes any of this stick emotionally. Eastwood and Traven have enough experience and years on them to give their performances some gravitas, but Minett—making his feature debut—is all over the map, with Rafo’s own motivations and changes of heart coming across as histrionic instead of natural (he doesn’t seem to get much directorial help from Eastwood, who’s known for working fast, getting a couple of takes, and moving on).
Director of photography Ben Davis shoots the hell out of the movie, giving it a beautiful, end-of-the-day glow, and Mark Mancina’s wistful, sparse score also does a lot of work to make Cry Macho seem more potent than it is. In the end, thanks to those elements and occasional moments in Eastwood’s own performance as well as that of Traven, Cry Macho does offer up reflections on aging, making poor decisions, and trying to redeem one’s life. One just wishes, ironically enough, that it was a little more forceful in getting its point across.
Cry Macho opens in theaters and premieres on HBO Max this Friday, Sept. 17.