In the acclaimed drama Brokeback Mountain, Ennis (Heath Ledger) tells Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) about a childhood memory. He recalls a strange way of life in which two ranchers, “tough ol’ birds,” he notes, shacked up. They made a life while others chuckled. It seemed fine, until one of them wound up dead in the ditch.
The way of the gun takes a new road, though, as Pedro Almodóvar (Pain & Glory) lets two cowboys kick up their heels in bittersweet fashion. Almodóvar tackles the increasingly trendy trope of “gay cowboys” with Strange Way of Life. While other dramas, like the rightfully lauded Brokeback Mountain and The Power of the Dog have probed masculinity through burly, hat-laden, gunslinger macho men, Almodóvar further explores the nuances of masculinity through characters who love getting in the, er, saddle.
The 30-minute Strange Way of Life marks a fully English-language production for Almodóvar after his mostly silent short The Human Voice. While the shift from flamboyantly European aesthetics of his features to the all-American tropes of this western might make the film seem like a departure, make no mistake: Strange Way of Life is Almodóvar through and through. It’s a revitalising melodrama with gorgeous colours and an adept sensibility for the awkward messiness of love. It’s a film of restrained emotions with a quiet passion fuelled by the strong silent type of man who says little and expects less in return.
Love and Wine
It helps, too, that Almodóvar finds seasoned players to embody the men who Ennis and Jack could have grown into. The film sees Sheriff Jake (Ethan Hawk) thrown for a loop when Silva (Pedro Pascal) trots into town after several years’ absence. As a doe-eyed guitar player (Elite’s Manu Rios) streams sultry notes on his strings, Jake and Silva cast longing gazes across the thoroughfare. A duel of pistols won’t be at dawn, but hopefully sometime come midnight.
A reunion and drinks spark tenderness between the westerners. But the get-together inevitably hinges on a cruel twist of fate. It leaves them asking what fate two men could have while sharing a ranch. This time, though, the story is optimistic.
So often, Almodóvar’s films celebrate women. When his films turn the gaze upon men, the characters usually have a dark fate ahead. Strange Way of Life proves no different as the circumstances that bring Jake and Silva together invite a tragic choice that could only befall star-crossed lovers.
As the tragic confrontation between Jake and Silva builds to its inevitable climax, the film flashes back to the fateful tryst that brought the cowboys together. Decades before, on a boozy jaunt in wine country, Jake and Silva, played in their younger years by José Condessa and Jason Fernández, have an effervescent encounter. The younger actors, decked out in extraordinary costumes by Saint Laurent and Anthony Vaccarello, attack each other with passionate fury as wine pours out of the barrels and they become intoxicated by far more than the fermenting juices. Few Almodóvar films have captured such heat as Condessa and Fernández soak each other up.
Taking Back the Short Form
If there’s a fault to Strange Way of Life, it’s that Hawke and Pascal simply don’t ignite the same fireworks that their scorching co-stars do. But any cooling has its significance. The older men are hardened by the codes of the westerner’s life that’s kept them apart.
As the gunslingers confront what it means to live happily ever after, Almodóvar morphs the western into a moving domestic drama. Strange Way of Life isn’t a film about riding off into the sunset. It’s about embracing the time between the sunset and the sunrise.
Deftly reimaging genre tropes and iconography, Almodóvar deconstructs masculinity in his signature fashion while celebrating love between ranch hands with more economy than he has before. There’s also a fine nod to Brokeback’s source material as Almodóvar shifts the tale of star-crossed cowboys back to short story form. Like Annie Proulx, he shoots straight and efficiently. It might be a quick 30 minutes, but Strange Way of Life is anything but slight.