Pedro Almódovar did not direct Brokeback Mountain, and although he nearly did, his new short film Strange Way of Life proves he has the chops to make a great western.
Strange Way of Life, Almódovar’s second short-form English-language venture, stars Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal as ex-lovers who live a desert apart and have not seen each other for nearly 25 years. Hawke’s character Jake is the sheriff of a small town, and Pascal’s character Silva runs a nearby ranch with his son. A recent murder complicates their reunion, and their relationship takes a drastic turn with the potential to become a permanent roadblock.
We never saw Almódovar’s Brokeback Mountain…until now. Strange Way of Life was touted as his “answer” to the award-winning 2005 drama, and while it shares many similarities, it feels restrained. Its 30-minute runtime holds it back from being the western epic that it wants to be, which is frustrating because I want to like it. I even want to love it.
Hawke and Pascal are not the problem. They’re giving some of their all-time best performances, which is no surprise given their track records. They have always been the highlight of everything they’ve starred in, and Almódovar knows how to use their talents to extract maximum tension of all sorts. It’s like watching three masters at work. Almódovar has cited desire as a central theme in his work, and if there’s anything I bought from this short film, these two characters feel very intensely for each other. Their love, however complex, jumps off the screen, and the sensuality is palpable.
It’s worth noting that I’ve never loved Almódovar’s style of storytelling — his blend of naturalism and surrealism is not something that has ever gelled with me, and Strange Way of Life is no exception. There’s the added layer of being predominantly in English, which is not Almódovar’s first language; it’s easy to tell that the script has been translated, especially because the words and deliveries don’t sound quite the same in English. It contributes to the quasi-surrealism, which contradicts the neutral western tone Almódovar is trying to establish.
During the Q&A following my screening at the New York Film Festival, Almódovar went on a long, entertaining tangent about his ideas for what happens to these characters next. It was clear from the way he described them that they were something he thought about frequently, and he even described some of them in specific shot formats. He’s mapped out in his mind what could have been a feature film (and a narratively satisfying feature at that) but is ultimately relegated to the first 30 minutes of that story.
I enjoyed my time in Almódovar’s western world, and maybe I’m grateful that Strange Way of Life is only half an hour long. Maybe that’s the perfect amount of Almódovar for me.
Strange Way of Life will receive a limited theatrical release on October 4 before expanding to a wide release on October 6.