Gran Torino's Walt Kowalski mourns for his country with anger and resentment until called upon to perform an act of Christian sacrifice.
Clint Eastwood, at the age of 91, is again starring in and directing a film. The movies he has made over the last dozen years or so have mostly dealt with America’s need for Stoic manliness, which can fix some of the irresponsibility that plagues our society. Yet he avoids showing up our authorities as cowards and thereby humiliating our democratic pride. As manly men, his protagonists save the day—but as Stoics, they do the honorable thing without expecting us to honor them.
But Clint has also made movies, like Trouble with the Curve and The Mule, about men who have lived long enough to have had enough of manliness. Nobody’s a hero in his dotage; you begin to ask yourself what else there is to life except dying for someone or for a cause. If you live long enough, if you outlive enough causes and their champions, heroism looks a trifle foolish, like an unwillingness to live with the facts of life. Aging presents us with a long decline of all our powers, many losses and disappointments, and then death. You might need Stoic resignation in face of mortality.
These movies are not popular. His latest, Cry Macho, is unlikely to wow audiences. Given Clint’s fame and the possibility that it will be his last movie, it’s nonetheless likely to attract attention and win people over despite their reluctance to accept this harsh medicine. This is a movie you can like, but not admire. There’s nothing astonishing in it, nor is there much excitement, but you might find yourself weeping, or at least growing misty now and then. You’re likely to end up thinking you’ve never seen Clint as serene as this. His antiquity is stripped from him when the camera closes in on his face, he smiles, and the camera reveals his beautiful eyes. You might even forget for a second that he is a very old man and think him a boy instead. He will convince you, effortlessly, that he is a good man and that life is, all in all, joyous, or else he wouldn’t be able to be so beautiful again.
Temptation and Sin
It’s Texas, 1979, and Clint plays an old rodeo star whose life ended twice: once when he broke his back riding broncos and then again when he lost his wife and child in a car crash. He has somehow survived the natural shocks that flesh is heir to. He owes a favor to the man who’s just fired him—whose horses he took care of all his life—played by famous country singer Dwight Yoakam. He figures justice requires that he pay his debts, and since he’s one foot in the grave, it’s about time he started. Accordingly, he accepts a crazy demand that he drive south of the border to Mexico City, and find this man’s son. His task is to bring the boy to America to become part of and eventually inherit his father’s ranch.
This turns out to involve dealing with a crazy woman, given to drinking and the pleasures of the flesh, who tempts him and might want him killed by her henchmen. She is the boy’s mother and a business partner, of a kind, to the boy’s father. Clint is too old for temptation, but is one ever too old to be humiliated by a shameless woman? To call the woman unnatural would not suffice, at any rate, given what a hateful mother she is—perhaps she takes revenge on the boy for her troubles with men. Here, Clint is at his weakest, not quite powerless, since he still has his irony and even this Jezebel is not immune to his unusual confidence.
The boy, accordingly, is a mess. He’s too proud to be really clever, and therefore unable to defend himself among so many who are wicked. He is nevertheless too aware of his own weakness to be suicidal. He has suffered mutilations and is on his way to be a drunkard; all he’s got going for him is a rooster he calls Macho, for illegal cockfighting. Screwed up as he is, his machismo, or sense of honor, has kept him vigilant against wickedness, and he easily chooses to become a cowboy like Clint and to have a father, instead of living on the streets.
Mary and Martha
So much for the first act. The second takes the old man and the boy to a small paradise in the backwaters of Mexico. The boy has almost no experience of being loved, none of having a home, and the old man has lost all that too far back to know what to say to a boy. They need to experience the home they long for before they can fully embrace it. On the run from the Mexican federal police, whom they fear because the mother wants the boy back, they hit upon a pilgrim soul in a wasteland. Marta gives them food and shelter when they are hounded by one of the mother’s henchmen, then offers them a blessing when they leave. But bad weather stops them on their way out of town and they sleep in a shrine to the Virgin. Then their car breaks down and Marta again feeds them and persuades them to stay.
After that, they become somewhat tame around a number of women: Marta is an old widow and she’s taking care of a number of nieces, having lost her girl and son-in-law like Clint had. Clint gets himself work at a ranch and teaches the boy, too. Given his lifetime of experience on a ranch, he also doctors the peasants’ animals. More than in his other movies, Clint is far more about life than about killing, and his fragility reminds you constantly that violence would be the end of him. In this story, he’s more of a survivor than a winner.
He gets along with the boy because they’re both needy but in different ways. Clint neither speaks Spanish nor knows these kinds of people—he’s used to Americans, who are outspoken individualists. The boy, in interpreting for him, can be proud not only of his ability, but of his country. For once, what he’s familiar with is not trying to kill him, unlike his mother or her dangerous boyfriends. Still, the boy needs to be proud of being a man, which means doing some kind of work and not being a coward. Cars and horses especially put these two together, since power and danger go together and make for a kind of independence. The movie is set in 1979, when the dignity of the working classes was connected with manliness, and it reminds us why American men used to be, at least to an extent, admired.
The Mexican boy, played by Eduardo Minett, does remarkably well with the rooster, which is only deadly in moments of danger. He has managed to save and then train him, he says, and make him a champion. I suppose an American audience would be shocked by cockfighting, or perhaps only disgusted and somewhat indignant about cruelty to animals. For my part, I suspect people nowadays are easily scared by roosters anyway. But for the boy, this is the only self-control and the only victory he’s ever enjoyed. The problem, from the moral point of view, is the gambling. We are not aristocrats, enjoying the cruelty because it is beautiful and educational—think about Hemingway and bullfighting—we are instead very moralistic about money-making.
Clint is not outraged by the cockfighting, to say the least. A rooster is loyal, though not very smart. The moral education Clint can offer is all about horse-breaking instead. A horse is the noblest thing in God’s creation, and his powers are sometimes much greater than ours. The boy is never more admiring than when he sees Clint’s power over horses, above all that they obey him willingly and even love him, in a way. Watch the movie, you will see that the boy doesn’t so much want to be a cowboy as a horse. If you allow me to take you south of the border for a moment—to speak with the gift for lyrical poetry that comes with the passions of the Spanish—the boy thinks Clint, famously a laconic man, is himself a horse.
At the core of the story, we find these experiences of the good we seek in nature. People might despise them or ignore them, but the very fact that they are presented simply, without self-importance, gives the story a power to carry conviction. The simple way of life of the Mexican village is attractive because there is no deception there; dealing with neediness leads to strength and health; it becomes possible to think about justice when people have the power to do good for one another, making friendships possible—as with a horse and his rider.
It’s not an accident that this is the part of the movie where the technology breaks down. Without a car, they’re stuck with the horses and with a view of man’s powers that seems positively ancient. The shots of the Southwest, the desert, and mountains always remind you of this vast land, which is largely unfriendly and favors strong men accordingly. This is not what America looks like viewed from the city, but the story suggests that the eternity of the desert is a better education, a reminder of how uncertain all our enterprises are.
I won’t spoil the plot—this is all by way of encouraging you to see this movie. Watching it, you might think that you’ve never seen Clint this way—and the experience will make you feel grateful. It is gentle, but without much sentimentality; there is fear in this story, but not much violence. But then you may think again and conclude, as I do, that in many other stories before, he tried to show this natural goodness without relying on violence, and even in a way that does not rely on manliness to carry the story’s moral teaching.
Clint seems plain and even old-fashioned, but he has lost neither his touch nor his artistry. You will recognize John Ford’s Romanticism and the young Hank Fonda in him, perhaps even some of the art of the silent era movies. Aside from our terrible political quarrels, there’s a reason Texas has a certain reputation in America, and the characters and sentiments you will see in Cry Macho get close to the core of the matter. The Western is no longer the dominant American form of storytelling, but it remains the only one that can put together personal integrity—tested in a harsh land and proved by protecting those who need us—and hope for the future of America. And Clint is still at work giving us stories about civic virtue, in this case educating boys to become men.