Making a satisfying short can be harder than doing the same with a narrative feature. All films have their own rhythms, but given at least 90 minutes, it’s easier to establish one. Gay Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s “Strange Way of Life” may be the start of a feature-length Western. Almodovar doesn’t use the format of the short to depart from conventional narrative structure. It plays exactly like the first part of a longer film with a three-act structure. Disappointingly, it hits its major story beats and ends rather than taking them any further. As a teaser for a film Almodovar may make down the road, it’s fine, but on its own, it’s too much of a fragment to do much. Its origins as sponsored content produced by the fashion house Saint Laurent to display their clothes are all too evident.
Almodovar conceived “Strange Way of Life” as a response to “Brokeback Mountain,” a project to which he was once attached. Even as it clings to a perverse streak typical of the Spanish director, it’s a great deal more optimistic. 25 years after meeting in Mexico, Silva (Pedro Pascal) and Jake (Ethan Hawke) encounter each other again. As young men, they got drunk with sex workers, only to wind up sleeping with each other. Silva’s attraction to Jake has persisted after all this time. (Both men seem to be bi, but no one’s very concerned with labeling their sexuality.) Jake has become the sheriff, while Silva is a cattle rancher. He lives with his son Joe (George Steane), a suspect in the murder of Jake’s sister-in-law. Silva still longs for Jake, leading to sex on their first night together again.
“Strange Way of Life” has trouble establishing the right tone. Sony Pictures Classics has grouped it together with Almodovar’s 2020 short “The Human Voice” partially because they’re the director’s only films in English. Writing in his second language may explain the odd rhythms and wording of the dialogue. Either the script needed another pass or the actors needed more rehearsal time. A campy undertone constantly hints at comedy without being all that funny.
“Strange Way of Life” makes a queer pastiche of the Western, down to filming in the same Spain-passing-for-Mexico locations as Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.” Yet it doesn’t seem particularly daring. The cheerful mood is its most distinctive quality. Casting two heterosexual actors in these roles is bound to be controversial, but Pascal’s performance as a queer man is much more believable than Hawke’s. Granted, he has an easier time because his character bursts with desire, but the film never establishes much in terms of sex. While not sexless, the scenes were shot without revealing much. A shot of Silva lying in bed in the morning, his clothes on but pulled down to expose his butt, does more to establish what went on between the men than their actual sex scenes. This short contains the germ of a good idea. Maybe in a few years we’ll get to see a better film that takes it all the way, but it doesn’t do anything more than act as proof of concept for it. It looks like filler made to kill time between features.
“Strange Way of Life” and “The Human Voice” | Directed by Pedro Almodovar | Sony Pictures Classics | Opened Oct. 4th at Regal Essex, Angelika and New Plaza