Mala Noche

4 out of 5 stars
Long before New Queer Cinema changed film’s pink-triangle playing field and Gus Van Sant became completely Béla Tarr–and-feathered, the director made a name for himself with this moody, lo-fi look at a lonely liquor-store clerk (Streeter) smitten with a Mexican youth (Cooeyate). Despite being sandbagged with the kind of amateurish performances and overall rawness characteristic of first features made on a shoestring budget, time has been extraordinarily kind to the indie legend’s debut. Never mind that the new 35mm print has transformed John J. Campbell’s black-and-white cinematography from murky into monochromatically gorgeous; even without that upgrade, the movie’s preference for the elliptical over the explicit has proved to be an enduring form of personal expression.

Based upon Walt Curtis’s autobiographical novel, this regional tale of unrequited lust turns Portland, OR, into a skid-row netherworld and never soft-pedals the story’s affection for rough-trade hookups. Nor does it play down the auteur’s own identification with the hero’s penchant for jailbait; the loving shots of Cooeyate pouting and posing shirtless are merely the first of many such portraits in Van Sant’s gallery of veal-cake erotica. But what’s most impressive about Mala Noche today aren’t the glimpses of future motifs (the atmospheric use of landscapes and local color, lots of cute boys) but that so much of the filmmaker’s voice is already present. Van Sant would later refine some of the blunter stylistic turns into a wondrous visual poetry; his ability to capture the addictive pull of desire, however, remains compelling even in its crudest state.

By: David Fear


Release details

Cast and crew

Director: Gus Van Sant
Screenwriter: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Tim Streeter
Doug Cooeyate
Ray Monge
Nyla McCarthy
Sam Downey
Bob Pitchlynn
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