Film Review: Strange Way of Life | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, December 9th, 2023  

Strange Way of Life

Studio: Sony Pictures Classic
Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Oct 01, 2023 Web Exclusive
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A short film’s shelf life is usually, well, short. After an initial run through a handful of film festivals, the opportunities to exhibit a short tend to dry up. It’s rare for one to be given a theatrical release. But that’s exactly what will happen with Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s new 31-minute film: a gay Western drama entitled Strange Way of Life.

Some hallmarks of the genre can be expected here, including a standoff at gunpoint and a gruff-talking sheriff. That sheriff is named Jake and is played by Ethan Hawke, who forces a gravelly rasp that never quite rings true. After Jake submerges himself in a bathtub for an unusually long time, however, we get the idea that that’s the point — that hiding and masking his true self are long-held habits. Silva, played by the affable Pedro Pascal, comes upon Jake for the first time in 25 years. We learn that they shared a “madness,” a love affair, in Mexico that lasted for a couple of months all those years ago. Silva claims he has a sore back and is in town seeking treatment. Glasses of wine that evening lead to a cheeky performance on Silva’s part, though, and the next morning Jake quips: “You don’t have a bad back.” There’s a murder victim, a suspect on the loose, and motives are questioned — but to say any more would give too much away. In truth, Hawke and Pascal’s performances are what carry the film. Both capably funnel their authentic acting chops through Almodóvar’s brand of melodrama to satisfactory effect.

Strangely, this is a western that isn’t particularly filmic. The camera does not linger on the landscape or savor the colors of the sky. The cinematography makes no significant attempt to pay homage to the heyday of westerns or even the so-called “spaghetti westerns” shot in Italy and Spain in the 1960s and ‘70s. (And that’s despite the production repurposing sets from director Sergio Leone’s acclaimed collaborations with Clint Eastwood including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.) Furthermore, the photography suffers from some of the same ills as Almodóvar’s previous work. Little in the frame is ever allowed to fall out of focus or into shadow. Instead, the background of darkened interiors are awash in muddied color. Despite taking on a new genre, it would seem Almodóvar and his long-time director of photography José Luis Alcaine are afraid to fully commit. They can’t help but cling for comfort to meager traces of the bright and colorful feel of their previous work together.

Indeed, the aesthetic is more telenovela than cinema and feels cheap or hastily-made at times — ironic given the outsized role of luxury clothing brand Saint Laurent in the production of the film. The fashion house’s current creative director Anthony Vaccarello served as the film’s costume designer, and the top of the film’s poster reads: “Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello presents…” Of course, funding has to come from somewhere. But the filmmakers went so far as to give Saint Laurent (a brand, mind you) a credit as an “Associate Producer” as well. I wonder what the two humans with that credit feel about sharing it with a corporate entity. Perhaps we can expect the boom operator of Almodóvar and Vaccarello’s next collaboration to be Dom Pérignon.

Brokeback Mountain (2005) paved the way for sultry stories of star-crossed cowboys, but the concept still feels novel in 2023 somehow. According to a recent report from GLAAD, there are more LGBTQ characters in films than ever before. Even so, there’s a longer history of gay characters being omitted from films, and despite the recent uptick the majority still appear on screen for less than five minutes.

Although Strange Way of Life is not Almodóvar’s most affecting work, viewers can expect a tender moment or two to make it worthwhile. Viewers may leave the theater, however, with an odd sensation: an ache akin to a phantom limb, a new consciousness and feeling of mourning for the fact that the stories of cinema past could not be as queer as the people who made and enjoyed them. So many stories left untold or bent to fit a heteronormative mold — particularly within a genre like the Western.

Strange Way of Life will play in theaters alongside Almodóvar’s 2020 short The Human Voice (his only other English-language effort) as well as a pre-recorded conversation with Almodóvar. The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 4th and nationwide on October 6th.

Author rating: 5.5/10

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