Through the bajillion films Clint Eastwood has made over the past 66 years, he has undoubtedly done more than any other single person in Hollywood to support – and break down – American fantasies about heroism.
On screen, he has embodied a motley gang of tight-lipped male loner living by a personal code – perhaps none more iconic than his thin-lipped, cigarillo-humming gunman, The Man with No Name, in the trilogy of 60s spaghetti westerns made by Sergio Leone.
Behind the camera, Eastwood has only dug deeper, possessing inquisitive notions of what makes a hero through 42 directorial roles (not least The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, American Sniper and Richard Jewell).
The quest for redemption continues in Eastwood’s latest, Cry Macho – a surprisingly low-key return to his old spiritual trampoline, western, and a very self-reflexive 1979 tale of a washed-up ranchero sent south on a semi-legal quest.
The film teases right from the kick-off, as the crooked title appears in red, knock-off saloon-like letters serenaded by a complaining country song about “mistakes” and “nights that are so long.”
Beginning with this cheeky annoying, elegiac tone, the film introduces us to Mike Milo (Eastwood), an angry ex-cowboy who has fallen farther than most.
The background story is shot in an inelegant, albeit effective, explanatory opening sequence: The camera pans over newspaper clippings that tell of Mike’s rise as a rodeo star before he was thrown by a horse and broke his back – an accident followed by the death of his wife and child, and Mike’s steady, soft retreat from the world.
In addition to whiskey, there is now little that can distract Mike from his sleep until his whining former ranch boss Howard (country singer Dwight Yoakam) calls a service and sends him off Texas, out on the road.
Armed with a map of Mexico City, an envelope of cash and a faded photo of Howard’s now 13-year-old son, Rafael (Eduardo Minett) – as Mike is supposed to sail back across the US border and away from his corrupt, “Nutcase” mother Leta (Fernanda Urrejola) – Mike sets off in his pick-up truck, grumbling all the way.
As Mike tracks down Rafa, who lives harshly on the streets of Mexico City, the rumbling, heated teenager is dressed as his namesake Ninja Turtle with a rattlesnake bandana wrapped around his head.
At first suspicious and combative, when he called Mike a “perverted old man”, he agrees to come up with the “gringo” when he finds out he was a cowboy, his eyes filled with sudden awe.
Granted, much of this set-up act (originally written in the ’70s by the late Richard N. Dash and updated by Eastwood’s regular Nick Schenk) feels pretty uneven.
The early scenes are marked by cheesy dialogue and exaggerated performances – most bizarrely enough, the considerably younger Leta goes full on Mike after he arrives looking for Rafa, in her palatial boudoir – which feels inconsistent with Eastwood, who formulates himself best through the subtle twitch of a cheek muscle or an unshakable gaze.
(A similar problem ruins the second unexpected tear-jerker in Eastwood’s filmography, The Bridges of Madison County, with Meryl Streep’s blossoming Italian accent clinking against Eastwood’s soft growl.)
And yet, as the fleeing couple leaves Mexico City – with Leta’s cartoonish, dingy henchmen on their tails – the odd boyfriend movie unexpectedly blossoms to life.
Rafa’s only possession, his rooster, Macho, is also on the trip.
“Macho means strong!” Rafa proudly informs Mike.
The old cowboy just rolls his eyes.
The trio’s return is delayed by car thieves, Federales and other annoying enemies, slowing the pace of the action to an incredibly pleasant crawl, while what starts as a seemingly archetypal hero’s journey – a clear case of goodies and evil, a border to cross and a debt reimbursed – grows into something more emotionally profound.
New information emerges that makes Rafa’s abduction seem even more dubious, and the moral dilemma of what is “the right thing to do” repeatedly arises.
Like the raw idea of ”freedom” and “happiness” that supposedly awaits Rafa in America, every simple answer is sown in doubt.
The only things one can really be sure of, the film suggests, are the private pleasures that the couple discovers along the way: a mug of hot coffee awaits you in the morning, being taught to squeeze fresh tortillas by a new lover, delicious idleness by communicating with animals, or campers under the stars.
For those viewers for whom Eastwood has been a deity-like fixture haunting the cinema for the past half-century, it is deeply moving to see a harsh, heartbroken old cowboy so openly long for friendship, comfort and love.
Dialogue that should squeak like rotten floorboards – “That macho thing is overrated, kid” – becomes sentimental in the best possible way, while Eastwood’s every mixed half step is loaded with the weight of his fame.
As a 91-year-old, Eastwood cuts a scarecrow-like figure, sharp-edged and slimmer than ever, often seen in silhouette.
Wearing a cowboy hat, and still throwing an evil blow, there is a vulnerability to his gentle tempo movements that were not so visible in his last majestic meta-excursion on screen, 2018’s The Mule.
And yet, as Mike picks a speck of dust out of Macho’s eye, soothes an injured goat, or jokes in sign language to a deaf Mexican girl, Eastwood’s curly green eyes sparkle with such a radiance that it’s hard to believe the picture was not sweet. digitally in post-production.
As Mike’s new makeshift family, who are the mother of generous restaurant owner Marta (Natalia Traven), gather around him, a golden calm flushes over the drama, which stands in stark contrast to (and perhaps can explain) the crowded opening third.
A spell is cast while their eyes are locked, and what should be embarrassingly mawkish theaters – a widow and widower holding each other close in a slow dance while dust stains twinkle in a ray of sunshine – are somehow transformed into nourishing film magic.
As the motto of the Space Cowboys, Eastwood’s 2000 drama about aging astronauts finally gets their chance in space: “‘Over the hill’ only applies where there is gravity!”
Here again, Eastwood achieves a certain weightlessness and transcendent grace in spite of – or perhaps thanks to – his many years of heroic service.
Cry Macho is in theaters now.