'Strange Way of Life' Packs Epic Emotions into a Mini Western Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Starring Ethan Hawke, Pedro Pascal
Published Oct 03, 2023Pedro Almodóvar's films are many things: erotic, lush, campy, outrageous. But the genius lies in how it all comes together to radiate passion. His canon is paradoxical in the most scintillating of ways — the comedy doubles as tragedy and the romance is provocative and political. His patented expectation-defying lens has captured some of the most moving sensory experiences to ever grace the medium, and his second English language short film, Strange Way of Life, marks his most overt and identifiable genre foray, though it's no less constrained because of it.
Strange Way of Life unfolds less as a queer Western and more as a ravishing mood piece — a sweet, pastel-hued love letter to cinema's Golden Age, replete with a grand orchestral score and a sweeping set of images that recall the arid mesas first immortalized by John Ford. In just 31 minutes, Almodóvar crafts a Western of forlorn stares and longing glances, where desire and passion cut deeper than any six-shooter. As a result, he leaves viewers yearning for more in the best possible way.
From the first frame, Strange Way of Life feels primed for a stand-off when gunslinger Silva (Pedro Pascal) returns to Bitter Creek after two decades to visit an old friend. Said friend, Jake (Ethan Hawke), is a past lover who's taken up the position of town sheriff — a post deeply at odds with their outlaw pasts, which is brought to life in a vibrant, hedonistic flashback. The reunion is warm at first and then quickly morphing into a tangle of conflicting emotions, where steamy affection gives way to heated suspicion.
After a passionate night together, Silva admits his true intentions behind the social call after some prodding from Jake. When Silva's son finds himself on the wrong side of the law, though, Jake curtly notes he isn't about to let a guilty man escape justice, regardless of their history.
Bound to spark comparisons to Brokeback Mountain — comparisons Almodóvar has cheekily stoked himself — Strange Way of Life doesn't possess the same biting pathos. Instead, in classic Almodóvarian fashion, there's a swooning tenderness that permeates the film. It mines emotions that even feature-length experiences fail to elicit, which, in large part, is due to the magnetic chemistry between its two lead performances. Pascal's soft-spoken but impassioned demeanour complements Hawke's gruff, resolved timbre, quickly conveying a lifetime of longing and bitterness. The two occupy a space that's both natural and heightened as Almodóvar's tight, focused script beautifully tows the line while never wasting a second of the brisk runtime.
Although a collaboration with fashion house Saint Laurent, the short never seems like a superficial promotional effort. Instead, the film drips with meaningful style and colour, with the striking fashion and production design playing off the period in a satisfying, believable manner. In particular, the plush green coat sported by Silva feels completely at home in this story, as it does with the rest of Almodóvar's audacious catalogue.
José Luis Alcaine's cinematography makes great use of the Almeria sets first made famous by Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy, and establishes a world that is both vivid and majestic, lending real scope and texture to this delicate story. Alberto Iglesias concocts a score that riffs on Ennio Morricone but maintains an identity all its own, bubbling with menace and melodrama in equal measure.
The film's brevity is both its power and its curse. Almodóvar spins a tale that is all too easy to get lost in, and it feels especially cruel to leave these captivating cowboys so soon, particularly when it feels like Jake and Silva's story has only just begun. Yet, despite how fleeting Strange Way of Life may be, the feelings it conjures puts even the most epic and grandest of period pieces to shame. Nonetheless, here's hoping that a feature-length version comes our way soon. (Mongrel Media)