Cry Macho is a powerful elegiac film from Clint Eastwood. At 91 years old, it seems odd to see Eastwood acting in a western, but he still has a lot to say about a genre which he spent much of his life in. He is quite aware of his age and casts himself as a retired cowboy reaching the end of his life. It is really a chance to deconstruct the western genre, and American myths which it mirrors, in a more calm and quiet way than his classic masterpiece, Unforgiven.
Both films are critiques of the mythology of the western film. It’s a genre that used to be one of the most important for Hollywood, but that is only rarely revived nowadays. This is for good reason. Society has moved on from that era quite a bit in terms of morals, social composition, and technology. At the same time, westerns are essential for the way they capture so many American myths. While westerns are guilty of spreading a mythology of American progress that really destroyed much of the natural and indigenous world that used to be here, often spreading violence and economic exploitation rather than civilization, progressives of today still hold to the same mythology of moving the world forward with progress while they attack other people, even though that instead appears to be the ideology of conservatives.
Clint Eastwood’s film collapses all of these conventions, and in doing so, it manages to critique much of American ideology itself. While otherness in most westerns took the form of native Americans, Eastwood here focuses on Mexicans. The border with Mexico is somewhat untamed, as has often been associated with Trump complaining about it, but Eastwood turns this chaotic world into a part of the West, an unpredictable frontier of different people encountering one another. For Eastwood though, none of the groups involved are inherently good are bad. They are complex, and all of them face economic problems and have people who just want to live.
The portrayal of Mexicans in Cry Macho is as normal people with aspirations, needs, and problems quite similar to anyone else. They mostly just happen to be poor. They also have to deal with corruption, as the film shows us Mexican authorities not really acting in the interest of their own population. In the running time of the movie, much of what most people might believe about Mexico and its border is collapsed into a different world that is foreign in a cultural sense but completely familiar to us as people deal with normal issues of seeking a decent life.
The expectations for cowboys are upended as well. Eastwood’s character is no conservative. He is a nature loving gentle person who likes fresh air and open spaces and tries to get along with other people. In keeping with his own real Hollywood self, Eastwood’s version of a cowboy is more progressive than anyone thinks of someone in a red state as being. He just happens to have zero interest in politics and prefers to be nice to other people and worry about normal problems, such as staying alive and healthy and having money and food. Isn’t that what everyone should be thinking about instead of arguing with one another over political ideologies?
Much like Unforgiven demythologized the West, showing exploitation of women and nature, a corrupt sheriff, racism, violent idiots portrayed as heroes, and a hard drinking antihero with a heart underneath it all, Cry Macho takes apart the American mythos even further, not only critiquing the western genre, but using it as a mirror for contemporary America that shows a hollowness to preconceptions Americans often have about one another and about Mexico. To Eastwood, life is about basic needs more central than any of that, commonly shared by all, and best satisfied with a common shared humanism.
Cry Macho is an important, sad, slow, meditative film with far more than it seems at first glance, but it is made to be touched by and thought about rather than existing as a piece of entertainment. It’s the kind of film someone could only make late in his career after saying everything he needed to say and being in a position to be self indulgent enough to reflect back on the whole ride and leave something thoughtful behind to help everyone else avoid getting lost. Clearly, Eastwood has both a conscience and a soul, and that humanism is what made his film career so amazing and engaging for so long. It’s nice to see that he cared enough to make a noncommercial film like this.
As Eastwood gets nearer to the end of his life, he has made a powerful and elegiac poem about both Eastwood and the genre of the western riding into the sunset. It’s a film for thought and not for action.