We could be in Montana, Texas, or China: An expanse of low hills, powdered in mist, rolls on the horizon. Dreamy and iconic, this gray-on-gray Nowhere is spied from a cargo train jumped by two friends en route from Mexico to the Pacific Northwest. Arriving on the damp streets of Portland, Johnny (Doug Cooeyate) and Roberto (Ray Monge) set up in a skid-row flophouse and amble into the orbit of a handsome liquor-store clerk named Walt (Tim Streeter). With its feet on the ground and its head in the time-lapse clouds, Mala Noche will be the story of Walt’s unrequited love for Johnny, a rhapsodic slacker noir pitched on the edge of physical and emotional darkness (the title means “Bad Night”).
Welcome to Gus Van Sant country.
Based on an autobiographical novella by Portland “street poet” Walt Curtis, Mala Noche (1985) was the 33-year-old Van Sant’s debut feature. Shot on 16mm for $25,000, it was the first of his bittersweet odes to tender outcasts and remains the simplest and least burdened.
Walt, who frames the narrative through his voiceover, is the prototypical Van Sant hero: handsome, vague, and impossibly gentle, poised between cuddly introspection and bright flashes of exuberance. He looks, in fact, precisely like a cross between Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, the melancholy emo-studs of Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, a film elaborated from the Mala Noche template. Walt is the father of the Drugstore Cowboy, deconstructed across the ensemble in Elephant, resurrected in the broken poet of Last Days, a denizen of Paranoid Park.
Mala Noche sidesteps potential clichés with an attentiveness to class dynamics (even skid row has its hierarchies) and the cultural differences, poignantly underplayed, between the grunge gringo and his object of desire. Van Sant wisely lets Walt control the narrative consciousness, leaving Johnny and Roberto, sympathetic as they are, something of ciphers. The danger here is an unexamined fetishism of type (inarticulate Latino rough trade), but Van Sant finds a tactful, honest reticence in his characterization of the Mexicans and complicates Walt with an awareness of his own privilege. In light of Elephant, we can see Mala Noche as the first act of a mind interested in graphing the knowable contours of experience, the first gift from a scrupulously compassionate artist.
The plot is episodic—almost, as in Idaho, narcoleptic, fading in and out of long, dark patches. Heartbreak, sickness, even death come into play, yet tenebrous as it is, Mala Noche has the tone of a daydream and a mildly trance-like effect. It looks fantastic in the fresh 35mm blowup now screening at the IFC—every broken bottle, cigarette butt, and scruffy chin rendered in John Campbell’s appealingly rough, high-contrast cinematography. (Campbell would be DP on Van Sant’s Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.) Underseen but not exactly neglected, Mala Noche isn’t in the same league as the recent smash IFC revival of Killer of Sheep. But this small, sensitive, wondrously likable debut occupies a nearby nook in the DIY pantheon.