Cannes 2023 Review: Almodovar gets back to the saddle with “Strange Way of Life”
There is more than meets the eye in this dusty tale of two long-lost lovers bound by a bloody fate.
Pedro Almodóvar returns to Cannes with an entertaining short feature: the 30-minute long film, starring Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke, is a queer western with a hint of kink. As much as the cowboys of the American West are associated with being masculine men who are the salt of the earth, so too are they associated with homosexuality. This didn’t start with “Brokeback Mountain”, though I’m sure that will be the main point of comparison for people who watch Pedro Almodóvar's short film, “Strange Way of Life”. There's the song "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other," the 1981 country music song by Ned Sublette about gay cowboys that was famously covered by Willie Nelson, or 2021's “The Power of the Dog” by Jane Campion that features a closeted gay rancher. The trope is a popular aspect of Westerns. But, “Strange Way of Life” is not a story of two men who are struggling with their sexuality like some of these other stories.
Pascal is Silva, a handsome Mexican cowpoke who comes riding into a remote western town with the resonant name of Bitter Creek. Having tethered his horse and affectionately nuzzled it in a way that might have been alien to John Wayne, Silva comes to see the sheriff, Jake, played by Ethan Hawke. It is the first time the two men have laid eyes (and much else) on each other for twenty-five years. After dinner, and a few glasses of wine, the two men’s feelings for each other become too intense to resist. The next morning, Silva asks to borrow a pair of Jake’s underpants. Almodóvar’s lovingly framed shot of Jake’s pristine underwear drawer is an amusing fetish. There is to be no post-sex glow: Jake instantly regrets succumbing to his desires, because apart from everything else, he is on the trail of Silva’s son (George Steane), whom he suspects of murder. He is not to be dissuaded from bringing this supposed felon to justice and it is to lead to a violent standoff and a singular vision of that domestic bliss which is their destiny.
At the Cannes premiere, the Spanish director described his new short feature as his response to a question posed by “Brokeback Mountain”: What can two men do on a ranch? Silva (Pascal) gives Jake (Hawke) his answer in the final seconds of the short, and it’s sweet, though it turns out Almodóvar is misremembering Ang Lee’s 2005 Western. The scene he’s thinking of is probably the one where Heath Ledger’s character tells Jake Gyllenhaal how his father made a point of showing him an old rancher’s corpse, gay-bashed with a tire iron and then “drug … around by his dick.” With an image like that in their minds, no wonder the couple decide to keep their forbidden love on the down low.
The scenes between Pascal and Hawke are erotic and passionate, both in the present timeline and twenty-five years ago. The 31-minute short utilises the two actors to their full capacity, offering us a multi-faceted approach to their relationship. The conflict between the two men isn't necessarily about coming out publicly. Yes, that likely stands as a reason why the two broke up years ago, but what's keeping them apart now is a promise Jake made to his family and Silva's fatherly obligations to his son. In this way, “Strange Way of Life” poses the two characters more as enemies, albeit reluctant ones. Gunplay has long been inspected for its metaphoric content: here, Almodóvar playfully, if tacitly, offers us the question of who is doing the shooting, who is getting shot, and what are the sexual and power relations implied by nursing a gunshot wound, stemming the blood flow using that lily-white underwear torn into bandages. I can imagine “Strange Way of Life” being enlarged into a full-length feature but that might well dilute the impact of these variously tense and poignant scenes between the two men. There is some very robust and old-fashioned storytelling here and “Strange Way of Life” feels quite old-fashioned in its way.
Overall, Almodóvar's signature style is all over this short. His colourful visual palette lends a sort of storybook quality to the film. And while it is visually enticing, it also sometimes feels too much like a film production, distracting from the story of two lovers. Silva's horse and saddle are immaculately clean despite having travelled across a desert. The town jail is bright, airy, and well-organised. It often feels like a modern illustration of the West. But, that's not necessarily a bad thing. As a short film, this style offers a powerful method of delivery for the story. It feels like a full-length feature despite its shortened runtime. His focus on his lead actors makes “Strange Way of Life” an artistic and romantic vignette in the life of two lovers.