In a world so impatient that people have started to whine about the injustice of movies playing in theaters for a few weeks before they (finally!) become available to watch at home, Clint Eastwood has spent the last 33 years waiting for the right time to make a sleepy, featherlight neo-Western about a widowed old rodeo star with nothing to live for, and the rooster named Macho who shows him the strength he needs to find new purpose.
The Hollywood legend first considered adapting M. Richard Nash’s “Cry Macho” in 1988, but at the spry age of 58, he felt too young to play the lead, and decided to make another “Dirty Harry” sequel instead. During the three decades that followed, however, he never forgot about the project, nor the lifetime of double-edged masculine swagger that it distilled into a single word. Wherever Eastwood went, “macho” went with him.
Look closely at his character in “Unforgiven” and you’ll find it lurking behind Will Munny’s wet green eyes like an undiagnosed aneurysm: Macho. Zoom in on any one of the bridges of Madison County and you can see it carved into the wood: Macho. It followed Eastwood to outer space, aboard the 15:17 to Paris, and into the deeply embarrassed backgrounds of his ex-wife’s reality television show; it lingered in his mind throughout baseball’s steroid crisis, MAGA fever, and a new age of action star beefcakes so yoked that even Paul Rudd has to have 14 abs.
Now 91 years old and feeble enough to instill Tom Cruise levels of snuff film suspense just by climbing onto a stationary horse, Eastwood has finally decided the time is right to make a movie about the kind of strength that allows a man to survive in this country — at long last, Macho is coming home to roost.
“Cry Macho” may be the first of Eastwood’s films to reflect the ineffable frailty that wafts off the late works of other masters like Manoel de Oliveira and Alain Resnais (neither of whom ever made a movie during the pre-vaccine stretch of a coronavirus pandemic), but it also finds that some of his oldest motifs have only gotten better with age. Striking as it is to see how far Eastwood has sunken into his bones since “The Mule” — or to feel how little muscle he’s flexing behind the camera even when compared to his work on 2019’s “Richard Jewell” — this dusty little fable tells a story that mines a gentle power from its self-evident weakness, and it only works as well as it does because it makes you worry if Eastwood may have waited too long to tell it.
Written by “Gran Torino” scribe Nick Schenk (whose unmistakably gracile script is also credited to the long-dead Nash), “Cry Macho” introduces its stooped hero as he shows up for yet another day of work on his wealthy boss’ ranch. Rather than smile at the sad old git or shake his head at him for refusing to retire, Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam) takes one look at Eastwood’s Mike Milo and decides that he never wants to see him again. “You’re late,” Howard yaps with a voice that suggests he would say the same thing if Mike had showed up 20 minutes early. “It’s time for new blood.” Howard doesn’t seem like a kind man, but when you consider that a single take of Mike stepping out of his car evokes all the tension and complexity of a Michael Bay setpiece, it’s easy to understand why someone might not want him on their payroll anymore.
And yet, Mike’s firing doesn’t feel practical or ageist so much as emotional; he makes Howard depressed. The guy used to ride a wild bronco like he was born with one between his legs, but now it’s 1979, and ever since “the accident” and “the pills” and “the booze,” Mike just shuffles around the desert, a ghost who missed his cue (Eastwood’s adaptation is far more elemental than its pulpy source material, as it cuts away a ton of human messiness to get to the marrow of an old man in search of new purpose). When Howard calls Mike back into his office for a big favor the next year, he knows just what buttons to press. He wants his ex-employee to drive across the Mexico border and “rescue” his estranged teenage son from the boy’s supposedly abusive mom, a job that sounds an awful lot like kidnapping. But this is a Clint Eastwood movie, in which a man doesn’t even need a name so long as he’s got a job to do, and so Howard is able to flip Mike around with nothing more than a simple “When did you give up?”
So begins another smuggling adventure in the grand tradition of “The Mule,” with Eastwood reprising his favorite late career archetype of the surly grandpa who breaks the law by exploiting the white privilege he previously hasn’t thought about for even a minute of his life. Eastwood has never been much for introspection, and so it goes without saying that Mike never really explains what he’s hoping to get out of all this. We sense that he’s got a code, that he might not have anything else left, that he won’t be able to keep up his tortured cowboy routine if he passes up the chance for one last ride.
There’s no doubt that “Cry Macho” would have been a richer movie had it played things straight and settled into the groove of a geriatric character study, but Eastwood doesn’t have a lick of interest in that gentle shit — at least not at first. Rafo (flatly affected newcomer Eduardo Minnett) isn’t just a regular kid, he’s a wannabe delinquent who spends most of his time competing in illegal cockfights with his invincible rooster Macho. And Rafo’s mother (Fernanda Urrejola) isn’t just some woman who absconded south of the border with her son, she’s… well, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what she is, but she’s very horny and has a handful of violent henchmen at her disposal.
It’s only once Mike convinces Rafo (and Macho) to get in his car — a process which, like everything else in this breezy tumbleweed of a movie, requires very little fanfare — that the plot shrivels up and things begin to shift into a lower gear. Neither Schenk nor Eastwood have the energy to maintain the charade that “Cry Macho” is going to be some kind of suspense-driven chase movie, and you can almost feel the film sigh and relax its shoulders as the job at hand starts receding into the journey required of it.
There’s some mildly intriguing mishegoss about Howard’s actual intentions along the way, in addition to a few close calls with the goon squad on Mike and Rafo’s tail (one of which ends with Eastwood throwing a phantom movie punch so absurd that even Bobby Bowfinger might’ve asked for a second take), but almost every scene is less urgent than the last. Eastwood seems to hit a max speed of about 25mph, and slows down even more whenever the film swerves into odd-couple comedy about two men and a heavyweight chicken. “He’s not a chicken,” Rafo insists, “he’s Macho!” Call him whatever you want, kid, but Mike is going to turn that bird into roadkill if it keeps leaping into the front seat of his car.
The relationship between Mike and Rafo isn’t all that complex, nor the chemistry between Eastwood and Minnett all that combustible, but the 11 roosters who play Macho collectively deliver one of the finest chicken performances this side of “Stroszek,” and the movie around them travels such a short road that it really only needs enough gas to take one critical detour along the way. Indeed, “Cry Macho” doesn’t really hit its stride until the movie parks itself in the remote Mexican desert where its characters lay low and Mike catches the eye of the sweet and sexy grandma who owns the local cantina (Natalia Traven). It’s here where Mike is compelled to practice what he’s preached to Rafo and make good on all gravel-voiced talk about how grit only gets you so far.
Pushing people away might feel like a show of strength, but anyone of Eastwood’s age has lost enough to put that garbage behind them. If Rafo’s custody battle is too basic to feel like anything more than table-setting, “Cry Macho” is never better than when it forces Mike to heed his own advice, retire the bullshit that he’s been perpetuating since the day he stepped into the limelight, and recognize that accepting the love that’s offered to him might just be the most hardcore thing a cowboy can do.
Eastwood has been an international symbol of masculine cool for longer than most of us have been alive, and “Cry Macho” is hardly the first time that he’s subverted his iconic screen image in order to question the bravado of its coding. But the fact of the matter is that all of that stuff just hits different when a dude nine years short of 100 grins at some know-nothing punk and says, “If a guy wants to name his cock Macho, that’s okay by me.”
The latest of Eastwood’s many potential swan songs, this sketch of a movie is transparent enough to focus all of your attention on the shadow imagery behind it. On the brimmed silhouette that its director and star cuts in a door frame, on the six pounds of gravel that it sounds like he gargled before every take, and on the way that he plays Mike as a man who would give anything for a place to hang his hat if only he could bring himself to take it off his head. Better late than never.
Warner Bros. will release “Cry Macho” in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, September 17.
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