de facto film reviews 3.5 stars

What does it mean to be a man? Clint Eastwood’s 39th directorial effort Cry Macho thoughtfully explores that question.

Eastwood plays retired rodeo cowboy and horse trainer Mike Milo, who lost his wife and son in a car accident and broke his back in a rodeo accident. Milo’s boss is ranch owner Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam), who supported Mike as he descended into a void of drugs and alcohol. When we first meet the men, Howard is firing Mike, but one year later, recruits Mike to travel into Mexico to retrieve his son Rafael (Eduardo Minett). A combination of guilt and sympathy for what Howard tells Mike about Rafael’s circumstances in Mexico are enough to convince Mike to go. Mike eventually finds Rafael at a cockfight, running a rooster named Macho – the quality Rafael seems to prize above all others. Understandable for a kid who has been abused, neglected, and feels better fending for himself on the streets than staying in his mother’s mansion. Mike talks Rafael into coming back to stay with Howard, and their journey begins in earnest.

Along the road in Mexico, they’re trying to avoid the police and Rafael’s mother’s hired goons. When their car breaks down, they’re forced to take refuge in a small village. Here the pair meets widowed restaurant owner Marta (Natalia Traven) and her gaggle of granddaughters. Marta speaks almost no English and Mike speaks almost no Spanish, but they quickly connect. Mike and Rafael take on work training horses for a local rancher and Mike finds an amusing sideline as a veterinarian of sorts for the village.

Cry Macho is something of a mixed bag, as are many of the late-era Eastwood films. Unfortunately, the opening act is where most of the weakness in this film lies. There are two primary problems. The first is that Eastwood as an actor is finally showing his age on screen. The man has played the tough guy for more than 50 years at this point, and has been convincing for most of those years. But while Mike is supposed to be an older character with some health issues in his past, there are moments where Eastwood comes across as close to frail. As the film changes and grows later on, it’s much less of an issue, but this feels like a part that would have been perfect as a Million Dollar Baby-era Eastwood project. The second, and more serious issue in the early going is Nick Schenk’s screenplay. This is his third collaboration with Eastwood (following Gran Torino and The Mule). Schenk has a tendency as a writer to overexplain and be somewhat hamfisted with his themes. This has never been more evident than in the first half-hour of Cry Macho. Dwight Yoakam is saddled with an embarrassingly written exposition dump of a character introduction for Eastwood’s Mike. Beyond the writing itself, it also shades Yoakam’s performance, when he can often be quite a good actor (see Sling Blade or The Minus Man).

But when Mike and Rafael reach the village where they hide out for a time, the film transforms for the better. The writing takes its time, slowing down and becoming more contemplative. We as the audience get to see Mike and Rafael’s relationship develop. Rafael gets to see the best in Mike. In how he trains horses, in how he helps the people in the village with their animals, in how he is sweet in his budding romance with Marta and familial in his relationship to her granddaughters. Rafael has lived a rough life so far in his 13 years, and had to harden himself to get through (though he never seems to be close to the “monster” his mother describes him as). He has had to be, as he sees it, macho. But through Mike, Rafael sees that being a man is more than that. It is about taking care of the people around you – about keeping them safe. That softness does not have to equate to weakness. That family is important – a theme running through much of Eastwood’s later work.

On a technical level, the direction is typically solid Eastwood. There isn’t anything flashy, but the work of a veteran shows on the screen. Eastwood’s performance improves as the writing does, as does Minett’s as Rafael. The film was shot with New Mexico standing in for Texas and Mexico, and cinematographer Ben Davis (working with Eastwood for the first time) takes advantage of the landscapes. Like Eastwood’s most recent starring vehicle, The Mule, the film has some beautiful shots of the countryside during driving scenes.

Cry Macho is a solidly told, character-driven drama. A throwback to classical Hollywood filmmaking that isn’t seen enough these days.