During a pivotal scene in Strange Way of Life, Pedro Pascal’s outlaw Silva reminds Ethan Hawke’s Sheriff Jake of a conversation they had 25 years prior: “Years ago, you asked me what two men could do living together on a ranch,” Silva whispers. This is both the story crux of Pedro Almodóvar’s queer Western short — a tale of former lovers reuniting and reminiscing on the eve of inevitable conflict — as much as it is the film’s raison d’être.

A little over two decades ago, Almodóvar had the opportunity to direct Brokeback Mountain — the iconic, tragic drama about two ranchers in love, which was eventually helmed by Ang Lee. But the Spanish maestro declined the project, citing fears that Hollywood wouldn’t grant him the freedom necessary to capture two men enraptured by love and “animalistic” lust. His 30-minute cinematic answer, releasing in theaters on Oct. 4, doesn’t quite reach the emotional highs of either Lee’s Oscar-winning landmark or his own filmography. Often, it seems torn between a hastily truncated feature and an overlong concept short. But despite its unpolished structure and its unwieldy dialogue that tries to bridge dramatic gaps, Almodóvar’s passion for the project is on full display, as is the aforementioned carnality he had once hoped to bring to Brokeback.

What truly sells the film — as a drama in its own right, and as a meta-textual tale of regret — is Hawke’s thoughtful, deeply layered performance. His portrayal of Jake proves him once again to be the rare American actor whose career kisses the Hollywood mainstream but who also feels like he belongs to the world of elevated arthouse cinema several oceans away. In Strange Way of Life, which is a Spanish production in the guise of a classic Western, he’s granted the stylistic balance he deserves. This may very well be a career-defining performance, even if the film in question is riddled with imperfections.

Almodóvar sets the mood for his cowboy romance.

Jason Fernández, Ethan Hawke, Pedro Almodóvar, Pedro Pascal and José Condessa.

Credit: Photo by Nico Bustos. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

It’s hard to avoid the sense that Strange Way of Life leaves much of its story untold. It introduces us to Jake just as he begins to investigate a murder, which occurs off-screen. It’s here that the lone rider Silva intrudes upon his small town, in the hopes of sharing a drink with him. Stilted spoken exchanges fill in the gaps of who and why, awkwardly revealing both men’s connection to the case, but these details quickly (if inelegantly) build emotional walls between them. Despite coming face to face for the first time in decades, they barely see eye to eye. Before long, the movie’s quiet moments take control, letting its exposition temporarily fade into the backdrop.

With emotional efficiency, Almodóvar weaves an entire world around Jake and Silva, even though the film is confined to a handful of rooms. The frame lingers on details and objects. Jake’s bed, his drawer of undergarments that Silva curiously inspects, an old handkerchief of Silva’s that Jake held onto as a keepsake are introduced both through isolated shots that highlight their vital importance to the former couple, as well as through fleeting dialogue that hints at why this relationship must remain behind closed doors.

However, Strange Way of Life doesn’t harp on the illicit nature of Jake and Silva’s romance. That they must remain closeted in the Old West is simply a tragic given — a concrete, unchanging backdrop that introduces new complications for the duo when they find themselves on opposite sides of the law. In the process, the items that Jake and Silva gaze at longingly become physical reminders of the intangible, of a love that may have once been true but can never be fully real.

Ethan Hawke outshines Pedro Pascal in Strange Way of Life.

Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke play lovers in "Strange Way of Life."

Credit: El Deseo. Photo by Iglesias Más. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Strange Way of Life özgü no qualms about the Wild West being a rough-and-tumble realm of outlaws. Therefore, the physical gentleness shared by Jake and Silva feels like a precious gem, peeking out from the harsh and unforgiving desert sand. Though their confrontations are verbose, both men reveal longing and a sense of unspoken regret through their silences — not only when their gazes meet, but also when they quickly divert their eyes, as if dancing around the specifics of their past is the only way to keep their long-buried heartbreak at bay.

At just 30 minutes long, the short film never özgü the time to show us what it looks like when all that pain comes rushing to the fore, except for a few moments when Hawke tries to bury it but briefly loses control. Almodóvar’s melodrama — with its signature telenovela artifice  — builds but never fully explodes here. Yet Hawke spends all of his screen time approaching that point of irrepressible anger and guilt, letting it guide both Jake’s actions as well as his inactions. His voice grows increasingly hoarse, and increasingly pained, as if Silva’s very presence, as a walking reminder of the past, were too much for him to bear. Hawke’s work is stunning to behold.

Pascal is by no means a minor player, but sadly, Silva is saddled with the lion’s share of the “Hey, remember that time—” dialogue, while Jake is afforded practically all the remembering. Silva’s motives are, unfortunately, only clarified in retrospect, so it can be hard to read him the first time around. However, upon revisiting Strange Way of Life a second time, it reveals layers to Pascal’s performance that might be unclear upon initial watch. It’s a film that obfuscates much of its drama before haphazardly scattering it across the floor like stray LEGO blocks, owing to its limited runtime. But once Pascal begins to pick up the pieces, the film’s emotional mysteries begin clicking into place. 

Despite the truncated length, Hawke and Pascal weave an entire history together through their interactions, their hesitant body language, and their brief but passionate physical rendezvous. Almodóvar and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine’s camera captures them unabashedly as aged men attempting to live out both the violent and romantic fantasies of the young. Closeups of heavy eyes tell of life lived, and the wrinkles around them hint at laughs laughed — both together and apart. However, what helps solidify this idea is a peek into the past, in a brief flashback scene that further synthesizes this theme and allows it to be truly felt, rather than merely spoken. 

Strange Way of Life idealizes the past in a haunting way.  

Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke play lovers in "Strange Way of Life."

Credit: El Deseo. Photo by Nico Bustos. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

While Hawke and Pascal play broken men beset by regret, a minor scene set decades in the past sees Jake and Silva played by Jason Fernández and José Condessa. These are young, beautiful men who feel as though they belong on a contemporary catwalk rather than in a Western — a fitting flourish, since the short was co-financed by fashion house Saint Laurent — though the exuberant sheen of this flashback is more than just eye candy.

The scene, which involves the two men, a trio of women, and pistols and wine, is rife with the kind of unbridled sexual passion Almodóvar spoke of when justifying his decision to leave Brokeback Mountain. It’s less explicit than Lee’s eventual film, but it’s arguably more impassioned and intoxicating. It’s practically bacchanalian, and it breathes life into Jake and Silva’s past in a way their words in the present don’t seem to.

This disconnect, between the way words and images paint a picture of the past, does rob the film of its power on occasion — the flashback only takes up a fraction of the half-hour runtime — but this dynamic speaks to the dissonance between how Jake and Silva see their past selves and their lovelorn romance, and the people they have now become. Strange Way of Life is by no means in the same league as Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, which treads similar territory about regret but with much more poetry and emotional heft. Jake and Silva’s words, on the other hand, are clunky, grasping at meaning that never fully coalesces. But the images that depict this past are pristine, making their present predicament all the more melancholy.

In fact, the film’s visual language draws us in and out of these flashbacks using both men’s close-ups, as if we were witnessing not the subjective memory of either character but a shared fantasy. Here plays a depiction of emotions and physical sensations that they may never be able to recapture. Rather than the memory of any one person, it’s the memory of the film itself, harkening back to echoes of what Almodovar might have conceived of years ago, had he made Brokeback Mountain in 2005. This peculiar editing approach frames these images as idealizations of a film that never was and could never be. They exist now only as the fantasies of an older and wiser man — one who perhaps lives with artistic regrets, even if the film doesn’t have the time or bandwidth to fully explore this instinct. 

Strange Way of Life may be slight in its runtime and overall scope, but it features undeniably powerful moments courtesy of its daring performances, as well as its eye toward a likely imperfect past depicted with a sense of impossible perfection. It’s the kind of luxuriant filmmaking at which Almodóvar excels, and the kind that makes his brief Western foray so watchable and alluring.

Strange Way of Life is now streaming on Netflix.

UPDATE: Apr. 12, 2024, 9:00 a.m. EDT Strange Way of Life was reviewed out of the New York Film Festival. This review özgü been rerun for its Netflix debut.

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