One of the signs of maturity is understanding how rude it is to call someone “old.” When you’re a kid, you don’t know better — every grownup is “old” from your perspective — but as you yourself age, you recognize that “old” is an insult. No matter how old you get, you don’t want to think you’re “old” — “older,” sure, but you still have a lot of life to live. Truly, there are few things more humbling than when the young/old dynamic gets turned around on you: You’ll never forget the first time your son or niece or some random kid refers to you as “old.”
“Old” is relative, of course, but while watching Cry Macho, I realized I was experiencing a rare thing in movies. The film stars (and is directed by) Clint Eastwood, who was 90 when this sorta-Western was made. (He turned 91 at the end of May.) There are all types of movies in the world, and Hollywood has lately made small progress in telling more stories by and about women and people of color. But to see Eastwood stride across the screen in Cry Macho is to be reminded just how unusual it is to see a starring vehicle for anyone his age. The film isn’t very good, but the fact that it exists at all is somewhat remarkable. It’s a movie that makes you confront the reality of aging. It makes you think about the whole concept of “old.”
The plot is pretty straightforward. Mike Milo (Eastwood) has had a hard life — lost his wife, lost his kid, lost his job — and now he’s a has-been working on the ranch of Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam), who keeps him around because he feels sorry for the ol’ son of a bitch. Mike used to be a famous rodeo rider, but then he had a terrible accident and messed up his back — now, he’s just marking time. That’s when Howard recruits him to go to Mexico and escort his son Rafo (Eduardo Minett) back to America. It’s not like Howard actually misses the kid — it’s part of a business transaction with his ex-wife, whom he hates — but Mike obliges, setting in motion a road movie and some unconvincing male bonding between the old cowboy and this smart-mouthed youngster.
There’s an autopilot quality to Cry Macho — it doesn’t necessarily conform to the typical dad movie conventions, but that’s nonetheless what it is — and it very much follows the model of the typical Clint Eastwood movie. But all throughout the film, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Partly, that’s because he’s been such a staple of my moviegoing life — that jaw, that tough-guy delivery — and partly it was because I couldn’t help but notice that Eastwood, like all of us, is getting older. He hasn’t been in front of the camera since 2018’s The Mule, and it’s not often you see a nonagenarian carry a movie. When Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda were in On Golden Pond, they were in their mid-70s. When Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva were in Amour, they were in their early-to-mid-80s. When Anthony Hopkins was in The Father, he was in his early 80s. The grumpy old men of Grumpy Old Men were only in their late 60s and early 70s. Eastwood is older than all of them in Cry Macho.
This isn’t the first time that the age of an Eastwood character was part of the plot. Way back in 1993’s In the Line of Fire, his aging Secret Service agent had to contend with the possibility that maybe he’s slipped a notch. Seven years later, he made Space Cowboys, which was built around the idea that he and his fellow long-in-the-tooth astronauts were the only guys with the experience to execute a dangerous space mission. And in recent years, whether it’s Gran Torino or Trouble With the Curve, the narrative tends to be that Eastwood’s wizened character is up against a changing world he doesn’t recognize anymore.
That notion is baked into Cry Macho as well — not very interestingly, I have to say — and it can sometimes be uncomfortable watching Eastwood try to do much in the action department. He’s not quite as sturdy as he once was, and you can sense a certain amount of cutting around him to make sequences believable. The viewer’s discomfort may be part of the point — Mike is well aware of how old he is, and his occasional feebleness underlines his physical limitations — but it’s also disorienting. The idea that Clint Eastwood — one of the paragons of onscreen masculinity for the last half-century — is now in his 90s almost defies logic. He looks like he’s still in better shape than anyone I know, and yet the unavoidable fact that he’s not as young as he once was left me feeling incredibly wistful.
The aging process is something, if we’re lucky, we get to experience in waves. We see our grandparents get older. We watch our parents get older. We notice our siblings age. (I don’t think my sister has entirely gotten over my gray hair.) We watch our friends from high school and college get older. We watch ourselves getting older. The alternative to aging is one none of us wants to consider, so we’re stuck on this path we’re on. Bit by bit, little by little, we’re all growing old.
Hollywood doesn’t do a great job dramatizing the aging process. We have lots of “wacky” comedies about codgers doing “zany” things — while there are some indies featuring older characters navigating golden-years romances, which cater to more mature audiences who have aged out of watching loud Marvel blockbusters. And then, of course, you have Old, a whole horror movie dedicated to the terrifying concept of being trapped on a beach where you age super-fast. Statistically, we’re living longer than ever, and yet it’s ingrained in us to be afraid of getting old. Being an old person means to lose the vitality that we have now. It means becoming diminished. We don’t want to get old because we want to stay young forever.
In Cry Macho, Eastwood spits in the eye of those fears. Rafo loves mocking Mike for his age, and it’s noticeable that in every scene Eastwood’s in, he is easily the oldest person on screen. It’s hard to think of any other actors his age who could get a film green-lit. (Surely it helps that Cry Macho was made at Warner Bros., which has been his home for decades.) There’s plenty that’s been said about Hollywood’s sexism — actresses “of a certain age” stop being movie stars long before their male counterparts — but in a time of franchises and blockbusters, few studios are going to put out a movie about a 90-year-old driving in a car with a teenager.
But with Cry Macho, the franchise is Eastwood — he’s just about the only movie star people will see in something simply because he’s in it — and that gives us an opportunity to ponder all the young people who regularly populate films. I’m not going to call Eastwood “old,” but he’s certainly older than the actors I normally see at the multiplex. He moves a little slower now, his line-readings aren’t quite as snappy as they once were. But there’s also dignity in Cry Macho’s unabashed depiction of being older. Eastwood’s physical limitations are a reality of the aging process — there’s no shame in showing viewers the truth.
When Boyhood came out, people marveled at the ability to watch young Ellar Coltrane get older year after year over the course of one movie. But we also saw the actors around Coltrane do the same — just like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, which has been, in part, an ongoing commentary about Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke growing up and moving into middle age. It’s natural to be scared about getting older — we associate it with being closer to death — and because movies sell fantasies, they often try to shield us from that reality. Not Cry Macho, which presents aging plainly and without apology. There’s nothing to fear — if anything, it’s something to aspire to. We’d be lucky to look as good as Eastwood does at his age.