Writer-director: Gus Van Sant, from the novel by Walt Curtis
With Tim Streeter, Doug Cooeyate, Ray Monge
The Criterion Collection
For going on a quarter-century, Van Sant has drawn portraits of displaced young people making trouble for themselves, from the early Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho to Elephant (his take on the Columbine killings) and Last Days (a fictionalized Kurt Cobain) and the current teensploitation drama Paranoid Park. But Van Sant's first and purest distillation of erotic longing and social dysfunction is in his debut feature, made for peanuts and set on the Skid Row of Portland, Ore.
It details the crush that Walt (Streeter), a convenience-store clerk, has on a full-lipped young Mexican illegal he calls Johnny (Cooeyate). The kid, who's willing to be fondled for money, is a reflexive sociopath. Give him a gun and he'll shoot it; let him drive your car and he'll run it onto a side railing or into a ditch. He's pretty full of himself, making muscles before a mirror, but Walt is full of Johnny too attracted to his danger as if it were some fabulous, toxic drug that had just hit the streets. This is the initial appearance of a familiar Van Sant theme: self-destructive slumming that devolves into a sacred erotic mission.
Most likely inspired by the 1950 Un chant d'amour, the only film directed by the French criminal-poet Jean Genet, Mala Noche also helped cue an outburst of Queer Cinema in the U.S. For heterosexuals of the Emmanuelle bent, Van Sant's closeup cruising of male torsos may have only ethnographic interest. But there's no doubting the glamour of John J. Campbell's black-and-white (mostly black) cinematography, as seen in this high-definition digital transfer. When Johnny's face comes out of the shadows and is illuminated by the flame of a lighted joint, it's treated with the visual sumptuousness worthy of an old Garbo or Bacall movie. Even the cockroaches look shiny. Mala Noche is a tone poem to sexual masochism, to the part of us that seeks an assignation with a wild child, smoldering with threat, in a back alley off life's meanest streets.