After nearly a decade of films attempting to tell the stories of unsung or misunderstood American heroes (American Sniper, Sully, The 15:17 to Paris, Richard Jewell), 91-year-old Clint Eastwood has returned to a more intimate, heartfelt story closer in scale to his The Mule or Gran Torino but nearer in spirit to his beautiful 1982 drama Honkytonk Man. Based on the N. Richard Nash novel of the same name (Nash and Nick Schenk adapted the book) and set in the late 1970s, Cry Macho tells the story of Texas ranch hand and former rodeo star Mike (Eastwood) who is let go by his weaselly boss Howard (Dwight Yoakam) without much ceremony or emotion, even though the men have been friends for decades. But a year later, Howard returns and offers Mike a job to cross the Mexican border and find the boss’s 13-year-old son Rafa (Eduardo Minett) and bring him back to Texas to live with his father.
Howard has a list of excuses why he can’t do the deed himself—legal problems in Mexico, the boy’s mother (Fernanda Urrejola) hates him, etc.—but he also paints a portrait of the boy running wild, being abused, and just generally in need of a father figure. Mike is hesitant but he also owes his ex-boss a great deal, especially when he hired him after getting in a brutal rodeo accident that left him nearly crippled. He has a way with animals, especially horses, and he was always the most useful member of the team of ranch hands.
Mike visits the boy’s mother first while she’s throwing a party, and they have a pleasant exchange that basically leads to her agreeing to him taking the boy, assuming the visit to Texas will be short. Mike finds Rafa at an underground cock-fighting match with his beloved and fearsome rooster Macho, and although the boy resists the idea at first because he doesn’t trust his father or anyone working for him, he’s also unhappy with his mother and loves the idea of living on a vast ranch, surrounded by animals. Minett’s performance is a strange combination of playing Rafa as older than he is, yet having an overly simple way of thinking like a child much younger than he is, which may be the result of his upbringing and time spent on the street. But it often comes across as under-developed and over-rehearsed acting, which doesn’t gel well with Eastwood’s more naturalistic and understated take on Mike.
After Mike’s pickup truck is stolen just before the return journey, most of Cry Macho is a road film, with Mike and Rafa “borrowing” beat-up vehicles throughout rural Mexico, all while being pursued by men working for Rafa’s mother, after she changes her mind about letting the boy go to Texas. Naturally, the trip is a bonding experience, and Mike takes a shine to the kid, especially when they recognize their mutual love of animals. When their current car breaks down in one small town, they decide to stay a while; Mike helps a local horse farmer break wild mustangs and assists the townspeople with their animal programs the best he can (“I can’t cure old,” he says about one lethargic dog, but it’s clear he’s also talking about himself). Mike also becomes close to the local cantina owner, Marta (a radiant Natalia Traven), and the two strike up what appears to be a promising affection for each other.
After growing perhaps a bit too comfortable in the town (they stay for several weeks), Mike and Rafa are reminded that they are actually in the middle of their journey, and they are forced back on the road with any number of pursuers on their heels. At a certain point in the story, there’s really never any doubt how things will turn out for our travelers, so that isn’t the real source of drama in the story. As the title implies, it’s their conversations during their trip that make for the film’s most interesting and compelling moments. Rafa’s ideas about masculinity and strength are more about appearing tough, while Mike tries to teach him that being macho is grossly overrated and that being sensitive to others’ needs—animal or human—is the most important part of being a man. Understandably, Rafa has trust issues since everyone in his life lies to him regularly. So having someone he can trust around him, like Mike, is a new experience and one that takes a while for him to grow into.
Ultimately, the film and the relationship grew on me. There are perhaps a few too many moments where it feels like Eastwood is trying to soften his image a bit (his character in Gran Torino was a bit on the racist side, and it felt a little too comfortable a skin for the conservative-leaning actor to wear). But there are still a few too many moments in Cry Macho where it feels like Mike is thinking to himself, “Hey, these Mexicans aren’t so bad after all.” Certainly, the movie’s heart is in a good place, and while intention doesn’t make a film great, it counts for something. As well as Eastwood can direct large-scale works with the best of them, his smaller films have always been among my favorites, and Cry Macho is a nice return to form.
The film opens Friday in theaters and on HBO Max.
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