Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Pedro Pascal
Rating: Four stars (Out of 5)
The Hollywood genre has been around for ages. It has perhaps begun to gather a layer of rust. But in the hands of Pedro Almodovar, the western receives a vigorous shake and a bright new sheen.
The two lead actors of the 30-minute Strange Way of Life, Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal, turn up the heat in a visual and aural delight that holds a whole bunch of aces.
The film travels back to an old way of life but delivers an experience that is mesmerising as much for the images and moments that Almodovar rustles up as for the Ennio Morricone-style score that underpins the action.
Westerns were nothing if not a showcasing of inviolable codes of masculinity. The Spanish director unsurprisingly moves away from the established notions of what constitutes manliness and puts sexuality at the core of the action.
Eventually, the guns are out but a bullet that is fired draws more than just blood. It wounds but allows for a sequence that oozes sensuality. Almodovar loves all shades of red but, amid the earthy browns of Strange Way of Life, the colour of blood stands out.
Horses, guns and bullets inevitably occupy a central place in Strange Way of Life, but it is the kinship of a lifetime that drives the two men. The dusty landscape and years that have passed do not in any way weaken the relationship between the principal characters, who have to work their way around who they were in the past and who they are now.
The English-language Strange Way of Life juxtaposes love and violence in a story of two friends once inseparable but now pulled apart by the divergence of their immediate needs. One is committed to punishing a wrongdoer, the other is determined to protecting him.
Hawke and Pascal are two gunslingers who worked in tandem half a century ago. They then drifted apart. Silva (Pascal), now a rancher, rides into the town of Bitter Creek, where his one-time pal and lover is the Sheriff. The ostensible purpose of Silva's sudden arrival is to rekindle a dormant relationship.
Almodovar, who in 2020 made the short film, The Human Voice, starring Tilda Swinton, returns to the abbreviated form and reinvents the western without abandoning its established format.
He abides by the broad rules of the game and yet delivers a movie that looks, and feels, fresh and nimble. It is a classic example of what a director with an original vision can do to a cinematic genre that is almost as old as the medium.
The past comes to the fore when Silva and Jake renew their old bond over wine. Jake, a teetotaller, makes an exception for the sake of celebrating the return of his long-lost friend. The night ends with the two men shedding their inhibitions.
A long conversation the next morning reveals the real reason for Silva's visit. Fissures begin to emerge. The two men who were, 25 years ago, on the verge of starting a ranch of their own before they went their separate ways are now driven by emotions and impulses that are no longer in consonance with each other.
A murder has taken place in Bitter Creek and Jake knows who the killer is. But Silva has reason to do everything in his power to prevent the Sheriff from doing his job.
The question that Strange Way of Life ends with is: would their stories have been different had the idea of a ranch fructified all those years ago? There is obviously no way of knowing but Almodovar delivers what is an all-knowing answer.
Ethan Hawke embodies the intense, no-nonsense Jake with great panache. Pedro Pascal provides the perfect foil as a more flamboyant cowboy, the sort who believes in taking the bull by the horns.
That is exactly what Almodovar does – he goes all out with the pieces at his disposal and puts on show a level of extraordinary craftsmanship. Strange Way Life is a marvellous demonstration of the power of brevity – and the lure of familiarity delivered in a compact new package.
Strange Way of Life, which hinges on tools that have long been in use, is half an hour of absolute cinematic mastery.