‘Strange Way of Life’ Review: Pedro Almodóvar’s Gay Western Short Leaves You Wanting More

It’s no secret that Pedro Almodóvar flirted with the idea of directing “Brokeback Mountain” in the early 2000s, the flamboyant Spanish auteur understandably convinced that Annie Proulx’s gay cowboy drama could make for an ideal English-language debut. He eventually moved on from the project (as he recently explained to IndieWire), believing that his interpretation of the material would be more carnal and unashamed than Hollywood was then prepared to accept. 

Almost 20 years later, Almodóvar is still trying to break through the language barrier and make an “American” feature of some kind, but the 30-minute “Strange Way of Life” — his second English-language short — finds him desperately trying to make up for lost time. 

Tantalizing to watch despite boasting all the staying power of a stray tumbleweed, this chatty little Western reflects on the repressiveness of its genre while mining a rich vein of conflict from the mutual acrimony shared by its two lead characters, who once dreamed of a life together, only to let that dream slip through their fingers because they lacked the ability to imagine it made flesh. There was no model for them to follow — no signpost toward that particular corner of the American frontier.

Now, thanks to some deep-pocketed friends at YSL (whose Anthony Vaccarello designed the film’s costumes), the fleeting but expectedly florid “Strange Way of Life” allows Almodóvar to offer his cowboys the opportunity that Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar never had — and to enjoy the opportunity they never got to give the filmmaker in return. 

It won’t come easy, even if “Strange Way of Life” opens with a literal model (Manu Rios) luring its estranged characters back together with a song. Both men in this film are mighty bitter about the one that got away — perhaps not unlike Almodóvar, himself — and both keep their long-frustrated desire locked tight in a holster of ulterior motives. When they reunite in the fittingly named desert outpost of Bitter Creek (actually the Spanish town of Almeria, where Sergio Leone shot the iconic spaghetti Westerns that Almodóvar does his best to ignore), it turns out that both men have itchier trigger fingers than they might want to admit. 

A seemingly carefree rancher played by a smiling Pedro Pascal (who serves a movie star-worthy about-face from his tortured work in “The Last of Us”), Silva makes a beeline for the cold-blooded local sheriff the moment he arrives in Bitter Creek (a gruff and grumbly Ethan Hawke embodies the lawman with enough jaded aplomb to make you wish this movie gave him a lot more runway). The two men initially seem like a mismatched pair, but it’s only a few short minutes before they’re slurping down hot soup and tearing off each other’s chaps. Almodóvar leaves most of the sex to our imaginations — what happens in the bedroom above the sheriff’s office stays in the bedroom above the sheriff’s office — but Hawke and Pascal still manage to squeeze more heat and tenderness into a single fade-to-black than “The Power of the Dog” allowed for in its entirety. Besides, at this point, it might be a little prosaic for a transgressive queer trailblazer of Almodóvar’s stature to get off on the sight of two Hollywood stars enjoying a same-sex romp, even in Western drag.

Of course, Almodóvar doesn’t tailor himself for the Western so much as he forces the Western to tailor itself for him. All the genre tropes that squeeze their way into “Strange Way of Life,” from milky white skylines to Mexican standoffs, serve the tempestuous and typically Almodóvar-ian emotions that burn inside its characters. Lest you forget it, Alberto Iglesias’ score is always there to remind you, its see-sawing strings evoking Hitchcock instead of Ford. Almodóvar has said that he built this short around the loaded conversation that Silva and Jake share the morning after their make-up romp — that he was compelled by the idea of allowing two queer cowboys to articulate the same emotions that Ennis del Mar had to choke down his throat. Even without fuller context, it’s palpably cathartic to watch Hawke and Pascal share their characters’ hearts with all the freedom promised by the Wild West. 

It’s the most thrilling display of any kind in a film that feels somewhat muted for something with so little time on its hands, and would even if not for its double nature as a glorified YSL commercial. (The costumes are exquisite, none more so than the emerald green jacket Silva borrows from James Stewart’s character in “Bend of the River,” which looks so great that the horse he’s riding seems to dance across the desert sand.) The colors are brilliant and the emotions pitched to match, but anyone hoping to see Almodóvar’s take on a shootout or a full saloon may have to settle for a flashback in which Hawke and Pascal’s impossibly beautiful stand-ins shoot bullet holes into barrels of wine and then slather each other’s bodies with the spillage. 

It’s the kind of scene that only Almodóvar would bring to the Western, and also the kind of scene that “Strange Way of Life” offers in all too short supply. Even knowing that the film is only 30 minutes long with credits, its ending still feels unexpectedly abrupt, as Almodóvar leaves us at the precise moment he’s been seeing in his head for the last 20 years. Like everything else about this project, it’s a bit of a cock-tease, but now that it finally exists, there’s no telling what might happen next.  

“Strange Way of Life” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it in theaters later this year.

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