Strange Way of Life: Queer Grit, by Scott Nye
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest begins with a shot; actually, at 31 minutes, it hasn’t even that much time, the shot must come before the film starts. Jake (Ethan Hawke) is the sheriff tasked with bringing the gunman to justice. It doesn’t matter that his target is the son of his former lover, Silva (Pedro Pascal), nor that Silva’s come to town and picked up their romance right where it left off decades ago. A man and his work are harder to separate.
With this brief premise, Almodóvar crafts a quite resonant work that, while it can’t afford the complexity of his features, offers all of their moral entanglement and comic flair. In flashbacks, young Jake and Silva (Jason Fernández and José Condessa, respectively) are not the polite, restrained cowboys of Brokeback Mountain, Almodóvar’s reported inspiration, but rambunctious, virile young men who toss off a foursome with two gorgeous young women to instead celebrate their own bodies.
In the present, they’re not so free. Hawke and Pascal play well the years of tempered passion separation created, the cumulation of small choices that create the idea of a person when their true nature cannot find expression. Hawke particularly is a bundle of knotted self-made myths, his gravely voice the last remnants of the humanity he buried. Pascal is softer, and the performance sometimes toes the line between playing the character’s compromise and the actor not finding the nuance within it, but the notes he plays towards the end are particularly resonant.
Unlike Almodóvar’s prior English-language short, The Human Voice, which near as I can tell was financed by his own production company, this was sponsored by Yves Saint Laurent, with costumes by their head designer Anthony Vaccarello. Major brands frequently do these sorts of collaborations with high-profile filmmakers, though they only rarely receive theatrical distribution, as this will. There is nevertheless an element of brand management at play that perhaps temper’s some of the film’s impulses, and foregrounds the design.
It’s hardly as if Almodóvar’s work shies away from eye-catching costumes under ordinary circumstances, and perhaps it’s just the period setting, but even before the credits rolled out the famous fashion name, I felt an element of dress-up at play that doesn’t usually come through in other westerns. In a film about people presenting themselves contrary to their truth, though, perhaps even this has an underlying purpose.
Almodóvar has frequently toyed with making an English-language feature (he was in fact offered Brokeback Mountain), and while that may never come to fruition, these shorts have become a fun way for him to play in the world’s premiere sandbox. Strange Way of Life tackles one of that sandbox’s biggest myths – the cowboy – sincerely and transgressively, emboldening it through its defiance.