November 30, 2021

Film

Slow motions: Clint Eastwood’s ‘Cry Macho’

By Adam Rivett

Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho. Image © Claire Folger / Warner Bros.

Despite patient filmmaking, the 91-year-old director’s elegiac feature is unable to escape the legend of the man

Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica is notable for many things, but perhaps above all the age of its director: at the time of the film’s shooting, de Oliveira was 101 years old. Watching the film a few years ago – de Oliveira since deceased, but not before he finished two more features – it was hard to separate what one might call the film’s inherent and implied qualities. Seen in innocence of the film’s centenarian creator, would its gentle, haunted melancholy reverberate in quite the same way? Without reducing a supreme artist to the rare novelty of his working age, that a film of such spirit and tenderness could be possible at an age when most are long gone or hanging on seemed to me a small miracle. I thought of de Oliveira more than once during Cry Macho.

Clint Eastwood is now 91 years old, and in his new film there is no escaping this fact – it is central, essential. What is implied in Angelica is overt in Macho and doubly so, with Eastwood doubling as both director and star. He appears in almost every scene, his wizened features and decades-earned gravitas elevating what in the hands of another filmmaker would be slight and sentimental material into something rarer, heavier, more meaningful. His slender frame and slow, uneasy stride carry a weight all their own. Small gestures and simple lines can carry a viewer into the past in a moment. He need only stand near a horse and speak of a past life as a rider to transport a viewer there, no matter how hard it is to see a rider in this present self, or how comically unconvincing his body double might appear, as the camera sits a polite distance from the action.

His is an exceptional life: a film star since 1964, Eastwood directed his first film in 1971, and while occasionally appearing in the work of others he has, since the early ’80s, directed and often starred in his own movies almost exclusively. There are histories of fame, masculinity and iconography that could be written using only Eastwood as a model, and there have been few careers as long around which so many contradictions are able to gather. A creator of violent fantasies, and a stern moralist about the folly of violence. A conservative committed the maintenance of the status quo, and a true individualist obsessed with liberty and personal freedom outside structures and obedience. A gruff man’s man, and, in movies like Million Dollar Baby and Changeling, an artist committed to both portrayals of modern femininity and a creator of self-consciously old-fashioned “women’s pictures”. It’s as foolish to reduce his body of work to a stable idea as it is to summarise his career in a short paragraph.

Yet even by his standards, his last decade of work has varied wildly. For every stodgy piece of hagiography like Sully or Jersey Boys, Eastwood is capable of a film like Richard Jewell, a fascinating study of the misguided deferral to authority, or something truly inscrutable like The 15:17 to Paris, a perplexing hybrid of fiction and documentary that had some critics reaching for comparisons to Kiarostami. Even his middling films of this period, such as 2011’s J. Edgar (a vision of sickly authority and institutional cruelty bogged down at every turn by miscasting and silly ageing prosthetics), are fascinating in ways rarely found in contemporary American cinema.

Crucially, Eastwood appeared before the camera in only one of his films these past 10 years, 2018’s The Mule. While allowing himself a certain tenderness in that film – it is bookended with Clint as gardener and carer of flowers – it was defined by its genre elements and its slowly mounting tension. Cry Macho is an entirely different affair, a film as diffuse as The Mule was taut, and it gives Eastwood the space to fully commit to what feels like a natural slowness.

The film’s plot is the simplest of sketches, a mere frame for rumination. The year is 1979. Having turned up for work late one too many times, Eastwood’s Mike Milo is fired from his role as cowhand by old friend and ranch owner Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam, looking similarly run down by the years). Via possibly the laziest of devices – the slow pan across a wall full of framed newspaper articles – we learn a little of Mike’s past. He was a great rodeo rider before taking a backbreaking fall, and, most tragically, he lost his family in a car accident. Dialogue in these early scenes plays a similarly functional role: Howard and Mike, though old friends, spit recollections and backstory at us in a flatly summarising fashion. There’s a functional quality here, hurrying us into a quick set-up. A year after firing him, Howard has a favour to ask of Mike. Estranged from his ex-wife who has taken their son to Mexico under what he assures Mike is duress, Howard needs Mike to cross the border, find 13-year-old Rafael (Eduardo Minett), and return him safely to Texas.

And so, with a perfunctory 10 minutes of filmmaking out of the way, we are in Mexico. Lest you think this film is about the retrieval mission, and any subsequent thrills and spills, the boy is soon enough found and, barring one long conversation with his mother, Mike (or, really Eastwood – that’s who he’s playing, an iteration of an archetype) and Rafael are heading home, with some stops and digressions along the way. The heart of the film is in these longueurs, most crucially in a small town where Eastwood meets a widowed cafe owner named Marta and her family, who take Mike and Rafael in.

The slowly developing romance between Mike and Marta is typical of the film – familiar and almost corny, yet so wordlessly tender, and carried so beautifully by both Eastwood’s weary grace and Natalia Traven’s hesitant charm that it redeems the inherent clichés of the situation (and the distance between their years). That tenderness and slow pace is likewise present in Eastwood’s treatment of animals; like so much else in the film, Eastwood’s laconicism seems driven by mourning and a subsequent retreat from the human world.

This patience as a filmmaker goes hand in hand with the film’s almost comical refusal to engage with any aspect of its thriller plot. At every point, where almost any other filmmaker would milk the scenario for danger, Eastwood minimises action and sharpens his filmmaking to the bare basics. When early in the film the police quickly swoop in on an illegal cockfight, Eastwood’s escape from the scene is nothing more than two shots: Mike moving towards the boxes, and a simple POV shot with the boxes arriving from right of frame to quickly smother the frame to black. It is as elegant as possible, and when we fade up, the police and spectators are gone. Eastwood’s infamously focused film sets – two takes is seen as an indulgence – has at times resulted in filmmaking that felt lazy or ill-considered, but here, combined with the diminished mobility of Eastwood the actor, it results in a sparse and clean shooting style. That same almost hurried approach to shooting has at times in the past left an actor stranded with a line reading they would kill to reshoot, but in Cry Macho, by accident or design, it adds to the feeling of decay and incertitude. In two different scenes Eastwood stumbles on a simple line reading – not a major fumble, almost unnoticeable, but the kind of momentary slip that would have most directors calling cut. Here, if not simply by force of Eastwood’s presence and visible frailty, it lends pathos, and a rare vulnerability.

If you somehow wandered into a screening of Cry Macho ignorant of Eastwood’s past and found yourself watching your first Clint film, perhaps all of this would pass you by, but this is a film unable to escape its history and legends. Its power lies in echoes and memories that not everyone will share, and stripped of those, even the most committed Eastwood fan would admit that what’s here is slight when balanced against his masterpieces of the recent past. What strikes one as mournful and tender is as likely to strike another as sodden and thin. Many of Cry Macho’s scenes strike an elegiac note – the image of Mike and Marta dancing alone in her empty cafe feels like a kind of captured dream, all dust motes and soft light. Perhaps a spirit of implied melancholy can be felt in these frames just as one might find a similar mood in late de Oliveira, or any of the old masters. It’s hard not to anticipate this as a “final film”, or, by dint of inexorable time, assume it will come to be, whether Eastwood approves or not. I can only hope he keeps going, into ever slower and sadder spaces.

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

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