Pedro Almodóvar’s “Strange Way of Life” Is a Queer Western Without Repression

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When the celebrated Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar declined to adapt Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” the job went to Ang Lee instead. Almodóvar later watched Lee’s version, and was so struck by an exchange between protagonists Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) that he spent years nursing a response. Two decades on, he’s unveiled a queer Western of his own: a thirty-one-minute short entitled “Strange Way of Life.” The film, starring Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal, is decidedly an original creation, but the rhymes between the two love stories are revealing. Jake (Hawke), like Ennis, is a stoic in denial about the strength of his feelings; Silva (Pascal), like Jack, is more attuned to—and willing to name—his own desires. In both plots, there are articles of clothing kept as remembrances, gay assignations in Mexico, and a question asked and answered in starkly different terms. As Almodóvar recalled in an interview with the Times, “Heath says, ‘What would two men do in the West, working on a ranch?’ In many ways, I feel my film gives answer to that.”

In “Strange Way of Life,” the question was first posed at the end of the young Jake and Silva’s brief but passionate fling. The romance began when the two (played in flashback by Jason Fernández and José Condessa) snuck into a cellar, shot up barrels of wine with their revolvers, and drank directly from the casks before descending into a tipsy make-out session. When they meet again, twenty-five years later, Silva still drinks to remember “every single one of those sixty days”; Jake, who turned down Silva’s offer to build a life together, has long abstained in order to forget. Nevertheless, at dinner the night of their reunion, he pours himself a glass, succumbing to one temptation and then the other. Officially, Silva has come to town in search of a doctor: “Believe it or not, working with horses destroys your back,” he says. After a night of apparently vigorous sex, Jake replies dryly, “No one would ever know.”

Pascal’s cowboy is all warmth and flirtation, given to dreamy invocations of the couple’s shared “fate” and “destiny,” which Hawke’s sheriff gruffly resists. After the repressed intensity of Pascal’s performance as Joel, another grizzled gunslinger, in “The Last of Us,” the role reversal is a pleasurable one: here, his capacity to communicate deep-seated emotions in a glance is used to very different effect. But, when Silva’s more complicated motives for returning are revealed, the walls go back up, and innuendo gives way to harsher realities. Silva’s son, Joe, is wanted for murder, and Jake is the man tasked with bringing him to justice. Staring down the barrel of his ex-lover’s gun, Silva challenges him, asking, “How will you explain that? A dead man in your bed still smelling of cum?”

The pair race off into the desert on horseback, each trying to reach Joe first—and reminiscing separately about their formative months together in Mexico. In Proulx’s short story, the country is treated as a site of forbidden, displaced longing, never to be discussed. Jack, it’s implied, travels there for illicit gay trysts in between rendezvous with Ennis; when the latter asks whether he’s “been to Mexico,” the question verges on a threat. In “Strange Way of Life,” it’s where a gaggle of female sex workers witness the lovers’ first kiss—then shrug and leave the boys to it. “We’re not wanted,” one of the women says, as Jake and Silva roll around on the ground, grasping at each other’s faces, bodies, and eventually belt buckles.

The vibrant production design, funny, forthright dialogue, and narrative swerves from desire to violence are all hallmarks of Almodóvar, who seems to delight in playing with the masculinity of the genre and of his leads. But his signature raunchiness has given way to a more subdued interest in the moments before and after the act itself, with attraction conveyed through brief touches and long looks. Unlike Lee’s adaptation of “Brokeback Mountain,” which charts a love affair through the decades, the short is focussed primarily on life in middle age. Though the more explicit eroticism is outsourced to their younger counterparts, tension still simmers between the older men from the moment Pascal walks in the door and an incredulous, admiring smile blooms on Hawke’s face. Their chemistry is palpable as the camera lingers appreciatively on their bodies; the inevitable armed standoff is just as charged. Where Lee was less concerned with traditional Westerns, Almodóvar has deliberately situated “Strange Way of Life” in a broader tradition, paying visual tribute to classics such as “The Searchers” and shooting in the same location as “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” During the talk back that followed the film’s première, at Cannes, he also invoked contemporary entries like Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” which hinges on the deadly flirtation between a closeted rancher and a younger man—though, as he matter-of-factly pointed out, “they didn’t fuck.”

In “Brokeback Mountain,” the exchange that piqued Almodóvar’s interest marks the end of the road. Burdened by their respective marriages and the fear of homophobic retaliation, Jack and Ennis’s lives together narrow to a vanishing point until one is snuffed out entirely. “Strange Way of Life” takes a more utopian view. Almodóvar’s protagonists appear bisexual—Jake, we’re told, has had an affair with a woman, and Joe’s existence is proof of at least one straight relationship in Silva’s past—but there are no wives to prevent their falling into bed together, and no one onscreen condemns or even questions the relationship. For the vast majority of the running time, whether owing to production constraints or by design, the couple are in their own little world.

Almodóvar may yet have the chance to populate that world more fully. At Cannes, he indicated that the short, which is slated for release by Sony Pictures Classics this fall, could be the prelude to a feature. If so, one can imagine a treatment that takes its time in developing the men’s tangled dynamic rather than hastily sketching out the details. As it stands, their arc is slight but sneakily affecting all the same. Although a conventional happy ending is far from assured, in the film’s final moments Silva gets a second chance to articulate what two men can do for each other: “They can look after one another. Protect each other. They can keep each other company.” ♦


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