Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest short film, Strange Way of Life, is a spaghetti Western postcard to unanswered love – an Almodóvar trademark – by which Spain’s greatest filmmaker since Luis Buñuel tells a bitter-sweet story of passion unfulfilled.
Beautiful and melancholic, with erotic glances more telling than Bette Davis’s eyes, it ends before it begins, leaving you wanting more.
The 31-minute short, his second English-language film after Tilda Swinton’s The Human Voice, features Ethan Hawke as the grizzled, gravel-voiced Sheriff Jake and a ruggedly handsome Pedro Pascal as gunslinging cowboy Silva.
The film premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and was the toast of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, where Almodóvar received the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media. It hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles on October 4 and nationwide on October 6.
Strange Way of Life begins with Silva riding into the town (aptly named Bitter Creek), where Jake presides as a sheriff. Silva tells Jake he is there to see a doctor over a bad back but then confesses he is in Bitter Creek to save his son, Joe, who is wanted for murder. Jake is the sheriff who must bring Joe to justice.
Jake and Silva are no strangers, they were lovers for two months, years ago. Almodóvar takes the viewer back to when the gunmen gave in to the love that dares not speak its name. The surrender seems to have haunted both of them ever since.
It’s implied that Jake turned down Silva’s offer to live together and that rejection lives on. At dinner, as they reminisce about old times, Jake gruffly tells Silva: “Don’t look at me like that.”
“How do you want me to look at you?” Silva responds.
Cut to the image of a well-made bed and Jake’s eyes as they scan Silva longingly, and you can imagine what happens next.
“This strange fate of ours, that your sister-in-law had to die so we could share a bed again,” Silva tells Jake. No kidding.
Filmed in the wild of Spain’s Almería desert (where Sergio Leone shot the Dollars Trilogy with Clint Eastwood), this is a love story told with little nudity (except for one lingering shot of Pascal semi-naked in bed) but with melancholic looks and erotic words.
“It’s all through the gazes or the way that the sheriff undoes his bow tie and considers the back of the other character or looks at the bed. It’s all about the nakedness and the gazes, and the words that I really find are erotic in this film,” Almodóvar explained in an interview with Vanity Fair.
Distributed by Sony Pictures and made in partnership with Yves Saint Laurent, Strange Way of Life is stylish with a sweeping string musical score by Almodóvar’s long-time collaborator, Alberto Iglesias, that reminds a bit of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The film is full of Almodóvar touches – the back of Pascal’s neck as Hawke approaches to kiss it, the drawer full of the sheriff’s neatly folded white underwear, the red bandana as a memento of a long-lost love, the shadows framing the pictures on the wall and the wrought-iron bed.
At 74, Almodóvar has 21 features to his name, among them 1988’s iconic Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, nominated for the best foreign-language film Oscar, and 2002’s Talk to Her, for which he was nominated for best director and bagged the best original screenplay Oscar.
We get Strange Way of Life thanks to the Spanish director’s wish to make a Western after he was approached 20 years ago to direct Brokeback Mountain. Almodóvar turned it down because he felt his English wasn’t up to it, and he wouldn’t have the freedom to film it as he wanted.
“It was the first time that I really thought about making a movie in English because I loved that story – I knew the [book] by Annie Proulx, and I loved it, and the script of Larry McMurtry was very good too. But the thing is, I was insecure with my English,” Almodóvar explained in an interview with The Independent.
“Also, in Annie Proulx’s story, one of the things that to me really stood out was the physicality of the erotic encounters that were almost animalistic in nature. But some of that sort of physicality of desire I didn’t see translated into the script.”
“In ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ Jake Gyllenhaal’s character says to Heath Ledger’s character that they should go away and work on a ranch,” Almodóvar said in an interview with the New York Times. “Heath says, ‘What would two men do in the West, working on a ranch?’ In many ways, I feel my film gives an answer to that,” he said.
And it does, to a degree, even echoing the lines. At the end of Strange Way of Life, Pascal says to a wounded Hawke: “Years ago, you asked me what two men could do living together on a ranch. I’ll answer you now.”
Almodóvar lets us imagine an answer with this jewel box of an ode to love. The film lingers like the scent of a favorite perfume; you want to know – did they live happily ever after?
And what stays with you is the thought that of course, they do. It’s a film you must see again to ensure you are right.