"He's so old!" has been the frequent cry from viewers of Cry Macho, Clint Eastwood's newest film as a director. And, yes: it's as undeniable as it's imperceptive — the director, who also plays Mike Milo, its elder, ex-rodeo cowboy leading character, is 91, a fact the movie routinely nods to. The matter, drawn into relief by his penchant for casting younger women opposite his increasingly gangly physique, seems less a problem here than a plain preoccupation — for what age has or hasn't given Eastwood, or the Eastwood figure, stands as the film's main subject. It surveys the terrain not just of West Texas and interior Mexico, but of what a person should or might learn across a long and bumpy life.
Macho's creaky, get-it-done opening, pockmarked by scenes which feel nakedly instrumental, finds Milo canned from a job as a Texas ranch hand, only to see Howard, his former boss (Dwight Yoakam, hewing eerily close to Gregg Turkington's mannerisms) hire him back on for an odd gig a year later. The assignment, pitched as a reciprocal favor to his longtime benefactor, is an odd one: he's to drive to Mexico City at a time border crossings were easier (the film opens in 1979) to locate Howard's adolescent son, Rafo. After finding the boy, Milo's job is to return to the border and hand him off to his estranged father.
As played by Eduardo Minnett, teenage Rafo's distinguished mostly by an irritable, often pouting and faintly effete manner which gives way to an openness in his slight moon face. The cracks in this unstable performance, sure to be a bother to many and not smoothed much by blunt scripting, must have scanned for Eastwood as a tough-guy put-on to be confronted throughout the movie's story, an adaptation by Nick Schenk and N. Richard Nash of the latter's novel. Whether one accepts the evocation or not meant to come through in Minnett's performance, its fragility is basically the point, a counter to Milo's even, plain and humbly learned keel.
Finding Rafo proves rather easy. After some drinks and overt threats, his negligent, insecure, and party-happy mother Leta (Fernanda Urrejola, previously of Narcos: Mexico) directs Milo to a nearby cock-fighting ring where Rafo bets his allowance on his prize rooster, Macho — and tends to win. A police bust of the ring that coincides with Milo's arrival dissolves as easily as sugar into coffee over a fade to black, serving to dispel a crowd, clearing the way for Milo to confront a reluctant Rafo.
Like most of Cry Macho's obstacles — often presented by cops or flunkies of Leta's who prove bumbling and comically ineffective (and where's the lie?) — this bust provides only an initial impression of a threat. Discarding any appetite for violence on the part of rooster, boy, and "aged cowboy" is something the film makes look easy, with scarcely a weapon to be seen throughout. (On the rare occasion Eastwood holds a gun onscreen, he handles it like he might an insect, with an obvious, revolted disdain). The film's violent henchmen — whether soldiers of the state (nominally) or of private interest (probably the same) — stand as posters to be batted away, though not, as a rule, put down.
What's left of a nominally dangerous journey after the threat of violence has been mostly sidelined or discarded — more pointedly than convincingly, it must be said — is the just-perceptible spine of a road movie with the progress that implies. But what remains here suffices, for Eastwood's only after a good-enough excuse for a kind of tone poem describing a life lived well, devoted to cultivating a kind of peace that occupies the movie's glowing center. The film's prevailing — and strongest — section lies at its heart, and finds the starring trio stranded in a small desert town. There, they shelter first in a shrine to the Virgin Mary and then the home of a local restaurant owner and sort of earth mother figure, Marta (Natalia Traven), while making intermittent calls to a nagging, foot-tapping Howard, letting him know they'll be a little while longer.
Anchored by car trouble (narratively) and Marta's hospitality (emotionally) — and, in time, by the presence of her family — Cry Macho hits its stride when it places on domestic life. With a halting, tentative, and by then quite credible progression, Milo and Rafo move from taking shelter to making a home in the place they've landed. Far from a dominant figure, Milo takes up the plummest role the movie finds him as a gentle, soft-boy kind of patriarch. While fixing up the car they brought there, he breaks horses for a less knowledgeable neighbor in finely sunlit scenes, reads aloud to Marta's girls (four granddaughters) in his brittle Spanish, and, through living a quiet life, teaches Rafo through osmosis another way to be. "Cowboys cook," he tells Marta, with whom he forms a mannered romance, a task he describes as "kind of our thing."
Recalling the many housebound scenes of an older Eastwood romance, Bridges of Madison County, it's clear that Cry Macho lives for these moments, and it does indeed come alive in them. In one scene, after breaking horses and patching up a wounded goat, Milo's newfound reputation as an affectionate animal caretaker prompts the town's residents to bring their animals to him, lining up for healing methods or at least advice. Though baldly sentimental, the film makes clear here and elsewhere that Milo has little but common sense to give; a fat pig should eat less ("less food, more water") and an old dog should sleep in its coddling owners' bed for comfort ("I'm afraid I can't fix old," he confesses with self-effacing frankness). Honest talk is about all they need, and Milo in old age has few compunctions about conducting himself honestly, admitting that he doesn't know too much.
This frankness suffuses the film entirely, which reflects Eastwood's lack of concern for realism or some noticeably unsmoothed edges. Yet what lies at its center — as a rough-hewn idealistic romance and quite pure expression — is delivered with an uncommon frankness and an old man's lack of varnish. Trading in broad symbology but rendered in personal terms, Cry Macho's a modest, plain, and earnest work that doesn't just know exactly what it's doing; it directs its attention precisely where it wants to.