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Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal's romance threatens to end in gunplay in "Strange Way of Life."

I don’t often review short films, but then, short films don’t usually play in our multiplexes. Strange Way of Life bucks that trend this weekend thanks to the star power of its two lead actors and director Pedro Almodóvar, making a foray into English-language film. This is just about the Western you would expect him to make, full of lush colors and soapy melodrama, and infused with the filmmaker’s queer sensibility.

The story here is an old one about a sheriff and an outlaw, with the crucial twist that they were once in love. Jake (Ethan Hawke) is the former cattle rustler who went straight — pun only partially intended — and became a lawman, while Silva (Pedro Pascal) is the boyfriend he left on the other side of the desert. After decades apart, Silva makes the long trek to Jake’s town of Bitter Creek, and Jake knows it’s not just to see him again. Silva’s son (George Steane) is the main suspect in the murder of Jake’s sister-in-law, and the sheriff means to take in the young man dead or alive.

I’m guessing Almodóvar must have gazed enviously on the repressed gay romance of Brokeback Mountain. Almodóvar’s Western stylings are those of a filmmaker who has absorbed the mid-century works of John Ford and Anthony Mann. I’m tempted to call this a gay version of Nicholas Ray’s 1954 horse opera Johnny Guitar, except that Johnny Guitar is already quite gay, which is one reason why it’s so tremendous. The entire first half of this 30-minute film is taken up with Jake and Silva hashing over the embers of their romance after their night of sex, and it’s a showcase for Pascal as Silva works through the baggage of all their years apart. This film is clearly modeled on Brokeback Mountain, and because of Pascal’s performance, it attains something like the power of that gay Western, even though Almodóvar’s visual grammar is completely different from Ang Lee’s.

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The abrupt ending of this makes me less happy — the story really could have used an expansion to feature length. Strange Way of Life is still a fascinating artifact from a filmmaker who hardly needs an English-language hit to secure his reputation but wants to pay tribute to the Hollywood directors who contributed to make his unique style. This film is paired with Almodóvar’s other English-language short, 2020’s The Human Voice, which is a short-film double bill worth the trip to the theater.

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