Originally released in 1985, Mala Noche introduced the world to director Gus Van Sant, who went on to find singular success in independent film punctuated by an Oscar-nominated season in Hollywood. Van Sant's directorial debut, however, has languished in the shadows. For the past two decades, watching Mala Noche has meant plunking down a hefty deposit for a dingy, out-of-print VHS tape, or more recently, renting a region 2 player to watch a French DVD released in May. This restricted availability seemed somehow a comment on the film's worth, positing Mala Noche as a student film unqualified for the Van Sant canon.
The opposite is true. Seeing Mala Noche for the first time in 2007 is a revelation. More than any of his subsequent films, Van Sant's debut weaves together the themes that will preoccupy him for the duration of his career so far: youth and danger, the desperate adventures of the American demimonde, and the intricacies of male-on-male lust and love. This weaving is done with uncanny assurance, in stark black and white that hints at the obdurate visual poetry of Van Sant's most recent work but adds up in a way Gerry or Elephant adamantly refuses to. It's a wonderful reintroduction to an American talent so ingrained he's taken for granted, and the most satisfying Van Sant film to hit the big screen since Drugstore Cowboy.
Based on Walt Curtis's autobiographical novella of the same name, Mala Noche tracks a young Portland man's sweetly obsessive love for a Mexican immigrant, a boy of indeterminate age ("He could be 17," muses the twentysomething Walt) who's only lazily repulsed by the gringo maricon trying to bed him. A half-decade before the "new queer cinema" of Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki, Van Sant brought to the screen the least conflicted gay protagonist in film history, one who obliviously rejects the classic gay narrative of escape and rebirth for a blue-collar staying put and making do.
As Van Sant's Walt makes clear in action if not words, same-sex attraction doesn't come with political aspirations attached. Walt isn't closeted, or even lacking in gay consciousness—he blasts his hometown's bigots as "homophobes," a progressive gesture in 1985. But Walt isn't a queer theorist; he's a clerk at a convenience store, and Mala Noche consistently rejects queer theory for queer action. As Walt says, in his sweet plain drawl, "I wanna show this Mexican kid that I'm gay for him."
Walt's various displays of gayness for Johnny, a non-English-speaking teen resembling a Latino Leif Garrett, form the majority of Mala Noche's plot. An unapolo getic predator with a heart of gold, Walt lures Johnny with hot meals, cold beer, free rides, and friendly company; his bid to buy time with the teen is presented as casually as a bowl of chips. When Johnny can't accept, Walt takes it in stride and remains true: Just because Johnny doesn't want to screw him doesn't mean they can't be friends, especially if Johnny's buddy Roberto is up for screwing Walt once in a while.
The friendships captured throughout the film involve an extraordinary level of perversity and cynicism. Walt's girlfriend Betty happily plans and prepares the meal designed to ensnare Johnny, and Johnny's best friend Roberto doesn't hesitate to offer his friend for sale to Walt. As for the film's central act of exploitation: The most disturbing aspect of Walt's smiley-faced yet unrelenting solicitation of Johnny is the clash of race and class. As a poor illegal immigrant, Johnny is in no position to turn down opportunities for employment, no matter how distasteful, and Walt knows it.
Still, the final impression left by these lightly sinister friendships is one of sweetness, which considering the sordid subject matter is nearly miraculous. In brilliantly simple scenes, Van Sant shows how situations borne of the iffiest intentions—hunting for rough trade, soliciting sex, baiting a fag—can coalesce into moments that feel, perversely but undeniably, like family. In this regard, Mala Noche is the most heartwarming movie about mutual exploitation ever made.
It still has the power to shock. Walt's hunting of Johnny is unabashedly animalistic; Walt navigates Johnny's ape-like machismo like the Jane Goodall of straight-bait, and Mala Noche's sex leaves marks. Still, the film's most intense moments involve not sex but stature, and the biggest shock comes from an act of supplication, not aggression. Throughout, the cast remains quietly remarkable, with leads Tim Streeter, Doug Cooeyate, and Ray Monge delivering the sort of imperfectly perfect, seemingly accidental performances that indie cinema is built on.
But the ultimate star of Mala Noche is its director. From the shot of fingers moving over a map to toes clenching inside white socks to a sex scene that's all knuckles and moles and beard stubble, Van Sant packs his debut film with images that announce a major talent. If you've never seen where it all started, don't miss it.