Strange Way of Life: Almodóvar’s unabashedly romantic western

Cowboy lovers reunite after 25 years in Almodóvar’s gloriously sumptuous queer ode to spaghetti westerns.

Pedro Pascal in Strange Way of Life (2023)

More than five decades ago, Almodóvar debuted with his short Dos putas, o historia de amor que termina en boda (1974) (Two Prostitutes, Or A Love Story that Ends up in Marriage). Since then Almodóvar – the most international and prolific Spanish filmmaker alive – has kept on reinventing himself, becoming an icon with the trademark unrequited, yet passionate love, that beats at the heart of all his work.

It is the kind of love that fights to resurface after the torrid encounter between Jake and Silva, the protagonists of Almodóvar’s latest: Strange Way of Life, a 30-minute ‘capricho’ (or caprice, as Almodóvar refers to his mid-lengths), the filmmaker’s second after The Human Voice, which was made during lockdown with Tilda Swinton. 

In Strange Way of Life, Almodóvar goes to the wild west of the Almería desert, where Sergio Leone filmed his Dollars Trilogy with Clint Eastwood, and embarks on answering the question posed in Brokeback Mountain (2005), the film that the Spanish filmmaker passed on directing many years ago, “What would two men do in the West, working on a ranch?”. 

Jake and Silva, lawman and ranchman, are meeting after 25 years when Silva arrives at the small town of Bitter Creek, swiping the tumbleweed between the two men as soon as they lay eyes on each other. But theirs is a forbidden love and Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal’s handsomely measured performance is a lesson in contained passion. Written in silences and subtle glances, their longing is elegantly punctuated by the filmmaker’s old collaborator, Alberto Iglesias’s string music score.

The Spanish filmmaker has stated that this is the first film where he’s followed genre rules faithfully. But even from its poster – which unequivocally calls to mind Andy Warhol’s iconic paintings of Elvis Presley – it’s clear that Strange Way of Life is still very much an Almodóvar film. Within a deliberate subdued colour palette, and the purposefully cardboard quality of a set that calls to mind the wooden panels that engulf Tilda Swinton in her lost love agony in The Human Voice, the filmmaker’s signature green and red are very much present. In one particularly lavish scene, shiny red wine gushes forth in a bacchanalian spectacle, and then there’s the striking green jacket worn by Silva/Pascal, which echoes Jimmy Stuart’s style in Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River (1952). 

But the key to Almodóvar’s unabashedly romantic story, is in the title, as it literally references the 1965 fado that opens the film, interpreted by Portuguese singer Amália Rodrigues. A song that, as Almodóvar has explained, decries how strange life is when you turn your back on your own desires, is here lip-synced by actor/singer Manu Ríos on extreme close up. 

Strange Way of Life is a gloriously sumptuous ode to not only the spaghetti westerns of lore or cinema itself, but a love letter to those old flames that never die. It’s a beautifully self-contained short, with the heartbeat of a full length.

 ► Strange Way of Life is in UK cinemas for one night only, September 25. 

The Human Voice review: Pedro Almodóvar goes short and free

With just Tilda Swinton on a sound stage, a handful of props and the words of Jean Cocteau’s play, Almodóvar encapsulates his work to date and leans in to new possibilities.

By Elisabet Cabeza

The Human Voice review: Pedro Almodóvar goes short and free