Almodovar’s Strange Way of Life, a florid, 31-minute homage to spaghetti westerns wrapped up in an unabashedly sensuous bow, is both a genre tribute and mash-up delivered in high style and, courtesy of stars Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke, a romantic confection that leaves us longing for more.
Shot in Spain’s Andalusian province Almería (its Tabernas Desert standing in for the American Southwest), Amodovar packs real punch into his forbidden love in the old West revenge tale, properly evoking the spirit of a genre built on morally ambiguous, quick-on-the-draw antiheroes.
Yet in Almodovar’s hands, this throwback western revels in a subversively clandestine intimacy between its alpha-male archetypes, owing more to Brokeback Mountain’s lovelorn cowpokes than to Sergio Leone’s trigger finger gunslingers.
Almodovar’s self-described period (perhaps turn of the 20th century) “queer Western” opens on an unexpected twenty-five-year reunion between Silva (Pascal) and Sheriff Jake (Hawke), Silva turning up on horseback in the dusty frontier outpost of Bitter Creek to find his one time buddy now local the letter of the law. Their initial exchange is uneasy and we quickly learn why—they share a former love affair long since buried.
Cautious Sheriff Jake isn’t looking to rekindle, but persistent Silva won’t be denied. A night of passion leads to a morning revelation that Sheriff Jake must get his man—not Silva, but Silva’s son, who, according to the determined lawman, must pay with his life for a crime against a local woman. But is Sheriff Jake following the law or a personal vendetta? And were Silva’s return affections merely to save his son’s life?
The picture is rife with grand flourishes, including a very funny, camp-skirting extended flashback featuring Silva and Sheriff Jake’s youthful counterparts (Jose Condessa, Jason Fernandez) courting a gaggle of prostitutes before an impromptu shooting contest reveals their passion for each other in a sequence recalling the sexy abandon of such early Almodovar works as Law of Desire and Matador.
Both actors take what could have been a stunt of genre fiddling and, guided by their world class director, turn in a concentrated class in repression, yearning, fulfillment and the tug-of-war between sexual tension and potential violence. For a picture this short, you believe in and root for their union. Pascal, especially, conveys the ruinous cost of keeping his great passion at bay for decades, and Hawke skillfully navigates professional and personal duty until the truth is laid bare in a final scene of exquisite, plainspoken dialogue, sans melodrama.
Produced as an inaugural outing for Sant Laurent, now in the motion picture business and here in collaboration with Almodovar’s El Deseo, Strange Way of Life is all vibrant colors, writ large emotions and a world where tough western men return to a ranch decorated by none other than Georgia O’Keeffe, piqued by a gorgeously evocative Alberto Iglesias score (don’t skip the final credits) and hallmark Almodovar theatricality.
Almodovar has offered that the picture considers a question posed by Heath Ledger’s tortured Ennis del Mar in Ang Lee’s 2005 landmark Brokeback Mountain, one of “What would two men do in the West, working on a ranch?” Strange Way of Life provides an answer in one eloquent exchange. As the master filmmaker moves through his supremely entertaining half-hour, one wishes to prolong its runtime. A feature, perhaps?
3 1/2 stars