‘Cry Macho’: Familiar Tropes As a Cowboy In His Twilight

The strangeness of Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho cannot be boiled down to any one thing — there’s a lot going on — but its origins as a movie, one starring and directed by this particular Hollywood figure, no less, are surprisingly scattered. In so many ways, the movie plays like a straight shot of Eastwood on Eastwood, an act of summary, revision, and rhyme that almost could have been shocked to life by Doctor Frankenstein. Its components — its tropes and genre scaffolding, its shambly yet economical ease, so characteristic of the director’s work of late — make it hard for anyone familiar with Eastwood’s filmography, particularly his work behind the camera, not to think of everything that’s come before it.

We’re wrong about that. But Cry Macho nevertheless bears all the marks of a film looking backwards, dredging up old routines, seeing how they play out now that the Eastwood of yore isn’t quite that man anymore. The movie doesn’t exactly discourage comparisons to Eastwood’s ongoing cinematic obsessions. It’s A Perfect World (1993): a story of a man, a child, a kidnapping plot, and an overriding antithesis to the easy signaling of goodness or evil that any of that might imply.

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It’s Gran Torino (2008): Eastwood the man playing on the idea of Eastwood the icon, with the additional, extraordinary hurdle of race and cultural differences being mapped back onto the history of that icon. It’s The Mule (2018): rueful to the point of verging on meta-textual, loose in the limbs, self-aware with a question mark — the work of a late-career veteran whose primary concerns now are not with clean, classical, realistic dramaturgy or auteurish fussiness, but rather simply telling the story. Getting in, getting out, going home, and then somehow emerging with an unplaceably odd, ideologically vexing piece of Hollywood art anyway.

Eastwood stars as Mike Milo: once a rodeo icon and skilled horse trainer, now a has-been being fired in the opening scene of his own movie. His boss, Howard (Dwight Yoakam), lays it out in a ramble of a monologue things you sense he’s wanted to say for some years. Mike’s a nobody now. There was an accident; there was, separately, a tragedy. Then came drinking, drug abuse — you know how these things go. He is now an inconvenience. Until he isn’t. A year after the firing, Howard needs a favor.

People who’ve cut an inimitable figure into the big-sky horizons of the culture. That in itself wouldn’t explain why, since his very first outing as a director (Play Misty for Me), Eastwood has returned, again and again, to the situation of fame, of legend. But it’s maybe one reason that his movies have had more of interest to say on the subject than most other movies. We could be talking about the hero of Unforgiven, whose violent reputation precedes him at first like a curse, then like a promise; or the more recent Sully, with its reluctant hero, very much a man who sees himself less as a savior than as a person who acted on human and professional instincts, but who gets drawn before the firing squad of public scrutiny regardless, impelled to explain those instincts.

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