Tuesday, April 16, 2024

‘Cry Macho’ Pleads for A Gentle Masculinity

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Cry Macho isn’t perfect, but I couldn’t help but eventually surrender to it despite its flaws. An icon of American Machismo in cinema Clint Eastwood has spent much of the latter half of his career trying to unpack his legacy. However, he stands now nearer the end of his life than the beginning, I can sense more than just a little regret in those steely eyes.

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Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho

In many ways, Clint Eastwood is a rarity in a town obsessed, in all forms, with youth. Yet, at 91, Eastwood reliably cranks out at least one film a year, and it seems, unlike most, isn’t afraid or ashamed of getting older. As problematic as he may be, as a filmmaker, he is refreshing simply because he refuses to yield to box office trends.

Much like Gran TorinoCry Macho is about an older man trying to teach a young kid how to be a man. Also, like Gran Torino, it is clear this is a continuation of Eastwood attempting to deconstruct toxic masculinity and masculinity itself. But I think Cry Macho is a better attempt.

It’s simpler and less contrived. Cry Macho only rarely ever veers into melodrama, and when it does, it is usually at the beginning. Soon, it straightens itself out and becomes about a man Mike (Eastwood), trying to get a kid, Rafael (Eduardo Minett), back home to his father, Howard (Dwight Yoakam). That’s the plot, but the story is about Mike and Rafel and how they help each other find what they didn’t know they were looking for.

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Eastwood and Dwight Yoakam in Cry Macho

Based on the book by N. Richard Nash, and adapted by Nash and Nick Schenk, Cry Macho works best when it’s not overly concerned with the story. That’s because the plot of Cry Macho is essentially a protracted excuse for Eastwood. Mike is a broken-down old Rodeo cowboy who lost his wife and son in a car accident. His friend and boss, Howard, fires Mike only to hire him to smuggle his son across the border.

By itself, the story isn’t just hackneyed-it’s not all that interesting either. But Eastwood cleverly uses the script as a way to smuggle in a story about Mike and Rafael. But it’s all the stuff surrounding that core that’s distracting. For example, Rafael’s mom, Leta (Fernanda Urrejola), seems like a character ripped from a telenovela. She tries to seduce Mike and even threatens him if she takes him away, calling Rafael “her property.”

Rafel hints at abuse, both physical and sexual that Nash and Schenk wisely drop early on. Together with Eastwood, they instead focus on Rafel’s obsession with being seen as Macho. Even his cock-fighting champion chicken is named Macho.

Amidst all this unnecessary side drama and the too-on-the-nose allegory of a young boy desperately wanting to be seen as a man with a pet champion cock-fighting cock named Macho is a surprising tenderness. Cry Macho has a charming love story smuggled in between a lot of the nonsense the film feels obligated to play out. In addition, much like Eastwood’s other works, there’s a stillness to the film that is serene and almost zen-like.

Though it must be said like all Hollywood films, Cry Macho seems compelled to depict Mexico as either something resembling New Detroit or a series of villages barely touched by modern civilization. It doesn’t help that we’re unclear precisely what Leta does or why she has henchmen. Though the script and Eastwood try to balance this out by having Yoakam’s Howard be more or less shady, it feels hollow. Perhaps the hollowness comes from Howard and Leta taking too much oxygen from the story. None of these threads are ever really followed through, so they feel empty and pointless.

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Eastwood and Eduardo Minett in Cry Macho

It’s the scenes between Rafael and Mike that make Cry Macho tug at the heartstrings. As they try to make it across the border to Texas, the two find each other filling the void in the other’s life. Rafael reminds Mike that life is about the relationships we build with people. Meanwhile, Mike tries to show Rafael that being a man means showing love, being kind, and knowing who you are and what you stand for.

You would think that a movie like Cry Macho would have Mike telling Rafael what being a man means. But thankfully, the writers and Eastwood prefer to show rather than tell. Mike, being an ex-rodeo cowboy, loves animals, and when the two become stranded in a small town, he becomes the local veterinarian of sorts.

Marta (Natalia Traven), a widow, befriends Mike, and soon the two begin to form a tender relationship. Marta has granddaughters, one of who is deaf. Lucky Mike knows sign language. It’s these scenes that ultimately make Cry Macho the movie worth seeing. It’s rare to see a romance between older people and rarer still to see one so warmly told.

It helps that Cry Macho is lensed by Ben Davis, who has shot everything from Marvel movies to British gangster flicks. Davis meshes well with Eastwood’s lean minimalism evoking, at times, a sort of sad yearning. One scene, in particular, knocked my socks off from the simplicity and the effectiveness.

Eastwood’s Mike tells Rafael about his wife and son and how they died. He’s lying down; Davis’s camera has him in a medium shot, the only light in the room coming from the candles from the shrine of the Virgin Mary. The brim of Eastwood’s cowboy hat casting a shadow over his eyes. It’s that last bit that is a masterstroke. 

Hiding his eyes allows the scene to transform from potentially schmaltzy to something more grand and heartbreaking. The trembling of Eastwood’s chin as he struggles not to cry makes the moment all the more stirring. Cry Macho is at its best when Davis and Eastwood strip away all the forced drama and strip it down to Mike and Rafael.

Eastwood is a legend, but can you imagine the talent of a kid who could not only hold his own but not get blown off the screen by the icon? Minett takes a character that is not that well written and effortlessly finds crevices and gullies of humanity. Rafael is a scared kid trying very hard to show the world that he is not a scared kid.

The scenes where Minett and Eastwood bicker back and forth is like watching a well-rehearsed dance. Rafael needs a father figure. Minett gives us moments where he realizes that Mike might be the best one he ever gets.

I wish we would have gotten more of Eastwood and Traven together. As it is, their scenes are some of the most sublime. They seem so at peace with one another. Eastwood and Traven have a loving kinship that forms that is sweet and impossible not to eat up.

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Natalia Traven as Marta in Cry Macho

The ending of Cry Macho is just about as perfect and as bittersweet as anything I’ve seen this year. Cry Macho is a flawed film; of that, there is no doubt. Yet, ultimately, it’s hard to truly hate a movie where gentleness is something to aspire to in these trying times. 

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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