STRANGE WAY OF LIFE Review: Can Love Survive The Years and the Desert
Ethan Hawke & Pedro Pascal Star in Pedro Almodóvar's Western Short
In a small desert town, on the fringes of the American West, where civilization has yet to envelope the people, two men rekindle their passion after years apart. But any blaze is at risk of combusting too quickly, leaving only ashes in its wake.
Perhaps I'm being a little melodramatic with this description; but then again, we've never had a western from Pedro Almodóvar. Strange Way of Life is the second in a series of recent shorts from the Spanish master, and he has described it as something of a rebuttal to Brokeback Mountain. Melodrama and westerns aren't often genres that mix, but when they do, they showcase all those emotions that usually only simmer in the shaking fingers of a gunman's long draw.
Jake (Ethan Hawke) is the Sheriff of this town, and he needs to arrest the man who killed his sister-in-law. Enter Silva (Pedro Pascal), a rancher, who has crossed the desert to see his old friend. Well, really his former lover, as is made clear fairly quickly. While their affair might have only lasted 60 days a couple of decades ago, it's clear the passion is still there. And it slowly becomes revealed that Silva might not just be there for a reunion, and that there could be a wedge put between them that their long-simmering love might not survive.
In terms of story, this feels like a feature-length film pressed into 30 minutes; occasionally it doesn't quite make the various leaps in information as smoothly as it could. But we have the set-up of these men, time having smoothed out and weathered their affections, but still they are awaiting in a quiet and private place. There is the reveal of their love, the fondness, the passion, the loneliness, the longing, the regret; then the anger and resentment over what might have been. And yes, there is action, a stand-off as the men must choose between what is right and what they love.
A flashback shows Jake and Silva as younger men (played by Jason Fernández and José Condessa respectively) - a moment of frivolity and danger, complete with red wine and willing women, leads to these men finding lust only for each other (don't worry, the women aren't bothered by this outcome). This scene, Jake's rather well-furnished home - these moments are quintessential Almodóvar, lush with emotion, rich in colour and texture, with dialogue that cuts to the chase and plays with romantic ideas and harsh realities.
Perhaps Almodóvar is turning the western on its head, or perhaps he is exposing what so many westerns have grappled with: what is masculinity, and how is it portrayed. It's a deliberate decision to cast two straight (that we know of) actors in these roles, and ones who do not play the typical make, either - we know both Pascal and Hawke as much through their indie work as their more Hollywood performances, and we know the depths and layers of emotions they are capable of exposing in the masculine psyche. They play this chemistry with the weathered sadness and longing of two men who have been in love so long, but apart so long, they no longer know what to do with that love.
Alberto Iglesia's (Talk to Her, The Skin I Live In) score enhances the melodrama, while the cinematography of José Luis Alcaine (Parallel Mothers) captures both the gorgeous Almería landscape (used in many a Spaghetti western), while framing the more intimate moments with care and precision. The film was partially funded by Saint Laurent fashion house, so the clothes do look sharp (maybe a little too sharp, at least for the rough ranchers).
But it's in the final moments that Almodóvar drives home his point - what could two men do on a ranch together. It's simple and perhaps not surprising - but given the emotions experienced in these mere minutes, it punches you in the heart.
Strange Way of Life plays with The Human Voice, currently in select cinemas in the USA, and in Canada starting Friday, October 20th.
Strange Way of Life
- Pedro Almodóvar
- Pedro Almodóvar
- Pedro Pascal
- Ethan Hawke
- Manu Ríos