‘Strange Way of Life’ Review: Pedro Almodóvar’s Fashion Short Reduces Its Gay Cowboys to a Couple of Clothes Horses

Every time two cowboys point their guns at one another on screen, there’s something homoerotic at play. Hollywood Westerns may be loath to admit as much, but not so Pedro Almodóvar, who casts Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal as lonesome cowboys reunited after 25 years in “Strange Way of Life.” Commissioned by Saint Laurent Productions (which is also premiering a Jean-Luc Godard short at Cannes), this half-baked half-hour serves as a sexy showcase for creative director Anthony Vaccarello’s latest designs, while barely delivering on the promise that an Almodóvar-made “gay cowboy” movie conjures in the imagination.

At the Cannes premiere, the Spanish director described “Strange” as his response to a question posed by “Brokeback Mountain”: What can two men do on a ranch? Silva (Pascal) gives Jake (Hawke) his answer in the final seconds of the short, and it’s sweet, though it turns out Almodóvar is misremembering Ang Lee’s 2005 Western. The scene he’s thinking of is probably the one where Heath Ledger’s character tells Jake Gyllenhaal how his father made a point of showing him an old rancher’s corpse, gay-bashed with a tire iron and then “drug … around by his dick.” With an image like that in their minds, no wonder the couple decide to keep their forbidden love on the down low.

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In Almodóvar’s film, a glorified fashion commercial that Sony Pictures Classics will release later this year, Jake and Silva were saddle buddies back in the day, but haven’t locked spurs in a quarter-century. Now Jake serves as sheriff of Bitter Creek, while Silva lives out by himself on the range, raising cattle. One day, Silva rides into town to pay Jake a visit, none too worried about what anyone might think — or else, he probably would’ve chosen something a little more discreet than that green denim jacket for the occasion. The two men exchange pleasantries, then an embrace (one of those front-to-back, both-men-facing-forward numbers Ang Lee gave audiences in “Brokeback”).

Jake admires Silva’s broad shoulders and fine flannel shirt from behind, his gaze tracking downward to his neatly tailored pants. Then Almodóvar cuts to the bunk, where those same clothes litter the floor and Silva lies, bare-bummed and “smelling of cum” in bed. Well, that’s at least one thing two men can do on a ranch.

Silva claims to still have feelings for Jake, but it’s not that simple: The sheriff is tasked with finding the varmint who murdered his sister-in-law, and Silva’s grown son Joe (model George Steane) is the lead suspect, which means their tryst may have had an ulterior motive. While Jake takes a bath and Silva looks for a fresh pair (a union suit would have been more appropriate, though Almodóvar can have whatever Old West underwear fantasy he wants), the two bicker like a married couple. Silva keeps trying to convince the lawman to let his son ride off to Mexico, but a job’s a job, and it turns out Jake had dealings with the dead woman as well, so he has to bring that rascal to justice.

At the risk of sounding like some conservative old studio head, Jake’s dilemma probably would have worked better if Silva were a woman … in which case, Joe might’ve been their love child from all those years ago. The way Almodóvar has it, the only reason for Jake to spare the kid is as a favor to his old flame. As the two men ride out separately to Joe’s hideout, they flash back to a corny, porny shared memory, when they stood side by side and blasted holes in a cowhide full of wine, getting frisky as the crimson liquid splashed over their younger selves (played by a couple of male models, Jason Fernández and José Condessa, with nice cheekbones and no natural acting ability). Channeling Bob Mizer stag films and George Quaintance paintings, Almodóvar goes where Hollywood never dared, showing the two studs wrassling and groping one another, while a trio of brightly clad women excuse themselves from the scene.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, Silva tells his son to skedaddle, but not before Jake shows up and tries to arrest him. The three men stand (pose?) with guns drawn, the homoeroticism crackling more than the tension as Almodóvar teases which of these caballeros might penetrate the other. So far, virtually nothing has felt the slightest bit convincing — not the casting, not the clothes and certainly not the love story — although the last scene does justify why the director wanted two men in these roles. It’s the “Brokeback Mountain” callback where one cowboy has another right where he wants him: in bed.

Named for the Caetano Veloso song another pretty face (Manu Ríos) lip-syncs over the opening credits, the super-saturated “Strange Way of Life” looks terrific, but doesn’t quite work dramatically. It doesn’t hold a candle to his 2020 Tilda Swinton short, “The Human Voice,” which creatively adapted to the constraints of the pandemic by modernizing the one-act, one-woman Jean Cocteau play. Judging by the deserted streets of Bitter Creek, “Strange” also feels like it was made under pandemic conditions — like a practice run for a proper feature.

With more characters and a thorough overhaul of the screenplay, the premise could sustain a full-length film, although the use of models instead of actors betrays what this really is: a branding exercise, both for Almodóvar and costumier Vaccarello, plus two stars eager to show their allyship. But it doesn’t bode especially well for Saint Laurent-backed features in the works from David Cronenberg and Paolo Sorrentino, seeing as how this short reduces its queer cowboys to a couple of clothes horses.

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