Screenplay By Nick Shenk and N. Richard Nash (based on a novel by Nash)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood, Eduardo Minett, Dwight Yoakam, Fernanda Urrejola, and Natalia Traven
“This time he sure drew a bad one
One that nobody could ride
But by the way he pulled his hat on
You knew he’d be there for the fight”
During his 70-plus year career, Clint Eastwood has played characters who are tough, tender, funny, tragic, and romantic. As the actor reached his mid-fifties, he began to seek out roles that challenged his acting abilities. Critics never hailed him as the next Laurence Olivier, but he would show the world that there was a damn great actor in there.
Roles in films such as Richard Tuggle’s “Tightrope”, Wolfgang Petersen’s “In the Line of Fire”, and the Eastwood-directed “White Hunter, Black Heart”, “Unforgiven”, and “The Bridges of Madison County” changed critics and the public’s perception of Eastwood the actor. Those films showed his range and true acting abilities. As the years moved on, the cinematic icon would move away from the bigger budget “Pop” films and concentrate (as an actor and director) on deeper stories.
If it was 1992’s “Unforgiven” that turned the tide on the world’s perception of Clint Eastwood the filmmaker, it was 2003’s drama of Shakespearean-like tragedy “Mystic River” that would really set him sailing on his late-career path as one of our most important storytellers.
Eastwood would continually find challenging films full of interesting characters. Mostly concentrating on serious stories about life and loss and sometimes starring in them as well, each role found the actor getting even better. The cliche of “like a great wine…” fully applies to Clint Eastwood.
In “Cry Macho”, (his 39th film as director) Eastwood plays Mike Milo a formerly famous rodeo star and legend of the circuit. One of all-time best. When we meet him late in his life, those glory days are long gone.
The film begins in 1979 where we find Mike beaten down by a serious rodeo accident, tragedy, and time. The star has more than fallen, he has crashed and is now a ghost, living a lonely existence. Years of pains both internal and external have weathered his face and his soul and have all but destroyed his good name.
This is a man who now sleepwalks through the world while the scattered pieces of his life leave behind a dusty trail of regret.
Mike’s boss (the great Dwight Yoakam) is tired of having this broken-down old man around his ranch and gives him his walking papers along with some insults.
One year later, Yoakam shows back up asking for Mike to help him retrieve his 12-year-old son Rafael (Eduardo Minett), who is in Mexico with his mother Leta (Fernanda Urrejola), a woman who does not want him.
Mike is unsure of his ex-boss’s intentions but needs the money. He needs the journey even more. Perhaps saving this young boy will save Mike from his own demons.
Once in Mexico, Mike meets Rafael’s mother, a rich and dangerous woman who warms to Mike, even trying to seduce him. His spurning of her advances causes her embarrassment (I doubt many men have resisted her affections) and causes her to angrily decree that Mike will never have “her” son. It is obvious the woman wants the boy not for love, but for power. Rafael is an unfortunate pawn stuck in a dangerous world of abuse. Mike knows he must get this boy out of there.
As expected, Rafeal reluctantly goes with Mike and their companionship is anything but cordial. Rightfully, the boy does not trust Mike, nor the father who wants him back, nor the mother who turned away from him and allowed her boyfriend to abuse him.
Their journey is more than the road back to Texas. For both Mike and Rafael, their time together is a journey to trust and forgiveness and the healing of the soul.
Along the way there will be side roads that clutter their paths with obstacles both good and bad.
The bad; Leta has sent her henchmen to retrieve her son. The crooked Federales are involved and setting up roadblocks to find them. Mike’s truck is stolen and the car they “borrow” breaks down.
The good; while waiting in a small town to figure out how to get a new car, the two journeymen meet a restaurant owner Marta, (a radiant Natalie Traven) who immediately takes to them.
It is here where the story finds its tenderness. As Marta and Mike begin a spark, so do Rafael and one of Marta’s granddaughters.
Kindness opens the walled-in souls of Mike and Rafael, but danger still looms. It seems like the two won’t be long for this small paradise and will have to mosey on.
Macho is a theme running through this film. It is the name of Rafael’s pet Rooster (with whom Mike finds another friend of sorts). Macho is the derided “badge” that Mike wore for most of his life as a cowboy. He doesn’t look fondly on the machismo that men (especially in Mexico) are supposed to walk with. As he tells the boy, “This macho thing is overrated.”
Perhaps this is Eastwood commenting on his move past his too-comfortable image for most of his acting career.
Loosely based on a novel and original screenplay from N. Richard Nash, Eastwood brought in Nick Shenk (his screenwriter for “Gran Torino” and “The Mule”) to craft it more towards his age and style.
The film’s supporting performances are hit and miss. Yoakam is solid but his character exists to spout exposition until one of the final scenes help him show an inherent humanity.
Urrejola is passable as Leta. She seems to be trying too hard and her character is written as too much of a “one-note” villain from a Telenova.
Travern is wonderful as Marta. Her role is played in full Spanish and the actress says a lot with her face and eyes. Rafael sometimes translates for Mike but in the moments where he is alone with Marta, the two can understand one another perfectly. They may not get what each other is saying, but they fully understand.
As Rafael, Eduardo Minett overacts his emotional scenes for much of the film. Too much yelling and brow ruffling made the young actor’s presence annoying. As we slid into the final act, I warmed to the actor, as it seemed he finally found his footing and was able to get hold on the character. As Mike says to Rafael, “You’re growing on me kid.”
Of course, the performance of the film is Clint Eastwood. At this point in his career, it is fashionable (yet always earned) praise to say that “this new film holds one of the actor’s finest performances.” Well, this new film holds one of the actor’s finest performances.
Eastwood has always had a gravitas in his late-career performances and this one is no different. In his old age, the actor likes to explore broken men with a chance for redemption. An age-old trope but this is the kind of character our beloved Clint has grown into smoothly.
Mike is a weathered old soul wearing decades of regret on his wrinkled face. At 91, Eastwood no longer stands as straight and tall as he once could, but he still looms large on screen. Moving and speaking slower lends itself to playing Mike. His legend may be dusty, but it still exists, and Eastwood is a pure delight in the part.
A scene where Mike and Rafael are rousted by some crooked policeman is quite funny as Eastwood lets loose a nonstop barrage of vulgar insults to the two cops, even after they have driven away. The moments between Mike and Marta where they smile and dance are tender and intoxicating. And when Mike lays back in the dark, cowboy hat over his eyes, and tells of the loss of his family, it will break your heart.
Filmed in some of the same areas of New Mexico where he shot “The Mule”, Eastwood and cinematographer Ben Davis have created a sun-brightened road film. As director, Eastwood usually shoots dark but here he allows Davis to let in the burning sun. This film is all about things coming out into the open. The shooting style enhances the film’s themes while capturing beautiful vistas while never losing its intimacy.
I miss the lush sounds of Eastwood’s self-penned scores, but Marc Mancina’s score is perfect. The composer perfectly blends a Southwestern style with minimal orchestral cues and a heavy dose of Mexican guitar. It is one of the more memorable film scores in recent memory.
Is this an antiquated tale? Of course it is, but Eastwood is too classy a filmmaker to let the cliches get the best of him. The simplicity of the plot quickly gives way to the profundity of the piece.
As Mike and Rafael (and Mike and Marta) grow close, the film endears itself to us through a patient cadence and a surprising elegance.
“Cry Macho” is a strong film, strong in character and emotion. If this were to be Clint Eastwood’s swan song as an actor or director, if this were the one to see the legend fade into the Hollywood sunset, it would be a fitting and proper finale.
PG-13, 104 Minutes, Warner Brothers Pictures, Malpaso Productions