'Strange Way of Life' - Almodóvar's gay cowboy short film

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday October 3, 2023
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Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal in  "Strange Way of Life" (photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal in "Strange Way of Life" (photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

The great gay Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar was in line to helm the neo-Western gay romance "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) which would have been his first Hollywood and English language movie, but ultimately passed because he wanted to make a sexier rendition and felt he wouldn't have the full freedom in Tinseltown he was accustomed to in Spain.

While his new thirty-minute English language short "Strange Way of Life" (Sony Classics) is not his version of "Brokeback," it's clearly an inspiration in Almodóvar's desire to create a queer revisionist Western.

It's hard to pin down what kind of film "Strange" is, even within the Almodóvar canon. It displays some melodramatic tropes long associated with his films (i.e. "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down"). However, the film is not camp or a send-up (i.e. Divine in "Lust in the Dust"), but you can't call it serious drama (i.e. "High Noon").

The movie lacks Almodóvar's zany humor and it reflects the restraint of his recent semi-autobiographical films ("Pain and Glory," "Parallel Mothers"). There are traditional Western elements (though we're a long way from "Bonanza" or "Gunsmoke"), yet the mannered way the characters speak and subtle kitschy elements (Georgia O'Keefe prints on the wall) hint at a post-modern subversion on a gay western with lots of homoerotic overtones.

Jason Fernández, Ethan Hawke, Pedro Almodóvar, Pedro Pascal and José Condessa in a publicity photo for "Strange Way of Life" (photo: Sony Pictures Classics)  

Clearly, Almodóvar is bending the Western genre to his unique vision rather than the reverse, but again reflecting his most immediate past work, there's a melancholy, a sense of loss, a grappling with a painful history that has repercussions for today.

Ultimately "Strange" is a story about forbidden desire, how these male characters process these unsettling feelings with all their inherent contradictions in a vain attempt to recreate a vanished past anchored by two questions, "What if?" and "Why not?"

At the center of "Strange" is a reunion recalling a history that could've changed both men's lives had they the courage to follow their feelings rather than the hostile dictates of society. Sheriff Jake (Ethan Hawke) is trying to solve the murder of his sister-in-law, who was once his ex-lover. The chief suspect is the sister-in-law's lover Joe, who happens to be the son of his old flame Silva (Pedro Pascal).

Not coincidentally, Silva rides into Bitter Creek (metaphor alert) with his apple green denim jacket (an allusion to Jimmy Stewart's coat in the classic western "Bend in the River"), the first time in 25 years the ex-lovers have reunited.

Jake suspects Silva reappears to protect his outlaw son, even though he claims he wants to reconnect with Jake.

There's a seduction with Jake kissing Silva on the back of the neck followed by a fade to black, where the camera pans on rumpled up bed sheets and Silva's butt, but no frontal nudity or kissing each other on the lips. Jake putting on his clothes suggests unbridled passion, but leaves the sex to the audience's imagination, followed by both men picking out clean white designer underwear. Jake accuses Silva of "smelling of cum" in bed.

There's an intense flashback when the two young hired guns (played by handsome models Jason Fernández and José Condessa) first met on a Mexican ranch, shooting bullet holes into wine barrels, then licking the wine off each other's bodies and giving each other sloppy kisses, such that the female Mexican prostitutes leave, recognizing a lost cause when they see one.

Then we discover their fling lasted for two months, with "the madness ending" perhaps unable to dream of a life together, they separated. Both men later married and produced children. Now Silva wants to pick up where they left off with the proviso his son be let off the hook as a favor, while a suspicious Jake resists any continuation, intent on bringing Joe to justice.

The film has been financed by the fashion house Yves St. Laurent with the cast wearing designer Anthony Vaccarello's clothes, so beauty factors here, along with Almodóvar's typical bold color palette and inventive camera angles animating the visual aesthetics. Even the Mexican prostitutes are stunningly in vogue.

Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke in "Strange Way of Life"
(photo: Sony Pictures Classics)  

The good, the bad and the models
All the subordinate male roles are played by models, but the film narrowly avoids becoming a glorified fashion commercial because of the awesome performances of Hawke and Pascal, who though both straight, convey a sizzling chemistry together. You truly believe these two men had a love connection, tainted by turbulent emotions gurgling inside that ultimately torpedoed any possibility of a permanent romance, yet lingers as a burning passion that's dictated their lives ever since.

The film was shot in the Spanish town of Almería, where Sergio Leone filmed the spaghetti western "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," with all the accompanying sumptuous cinematography evoking a classic Western, but remade to reflect our contemporary focus on same-sex desires. It's reminiscent of Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven" a '50s period piece reimagined with 2000s themes, asking what if that original film had actually dealt with issues that were present but ignored during that era. Almodóvar attempts a similar adaptation from his own quirky perspective.

The heart of the film is the Jake/Silvio bond. We have two superb actors yearning to reveal more of their characters to viewers, since both appear heavily conflicted, yet are hampered by a script that tries to tie loose ends too hastily so the movie ends before it has actually begun.

"Strange Way of Life" (from the Brazilian Caetano Veloso song lip-synched over the opening credits) could easily have been a full feature film. We're always glad to have Almodóvar back in the saddle in a rare non-female-centric yet somewhat exasperating film, as we want to spend more time with these two compelling, irksome cowboys and of course ask, "What's next?"

Note: "Strange Way of Life" will be paired in theaters, locally at AMC's Kabuki and Metreon, with Almodóvar's excellent first half-hour Spanish short "The Human Voice" (2020) based on gay auteur Jean Cocteau's 1930 play, starring Tilda Swinton, as a woman having a breakdown on the telephone as she speaks to a lover who has just left her.


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