“Mala Noche”, the first real film from Gus Van Sant, this is the first time I have seen the film and I was really blown away. It is such a raw personal film; it feels as if you are watching something you are not supposed to.
The story is set on the streets of Portland, Oregon and a series of dark places like cheap hotels and neighborhood bars. Made in 1985 for $25,000, this fresh, original film turns its high-contrast, black-and-white footage into a heightened form of immediacy. The plot is about sincere and noble obsession that a young romantic guy named Walt, who works in a convenient store has over a Mexican boy named Johnny who's come to Oregon illegally with his friend Pepper. He doesn't speak English and he isn't much interested in Walt, except in the teasing way of a hustler trying to work him for a meal or a couple of drinks. I understand the idea behind an obsession, however the character of Johnny is so disconnected and rather basic that I hated his role. Walt seems to invite Johnny's abuse, or at least accepts bad treatment when it's all that's offered, which is terrible.
What Walt's interested in is a little danger; he longs, it seems, for a bad night, romanticizing the possibility. And it's clear from the beginning that even though he's barely a rung up on the social ladder from these indigents, he gets a thrill from slumming and playing the benefactor.
Van Sant's next feature in 1989 was "Drugstore Cowboy", but even here you can understand his empathy for edge-living outsiders and his passionate absorption in the poetic possibilities of the situation. In certain moments “Mala Noche” has the feeling of early Godard’s films, particularly when the guys go in Walt's car for a ride in the country. And late in the film, critics have said that as Walt is searching the streets for the missing object of his desire, there's an inspired recasting of the Harry Lime entrance in "The Third Man."
The movie, which is based loosely on a novella by Portland poet Walt Curtis, is a walk on the wild side, but even at its most tragic, the vision isn't despairing, possibly because there is such a feeling of romantic elation in the images. Partly the film is reflective of Van Sant's romanticism for losers; it's fascinated by the poetic allure of trashy beautiful boys riding the rail into the promised land and ending up dead, crushed by the new urban settings.
It's Van Sant's conception of Walt, and the sense of naiveté he projects is certainly endearing, within his infatuation for this kid, he truly means well, the problem is when he looses perspective of his crush and goes into a dramatic situation. He's obsessed: yet still he's imagining situations, hyping his own emotions because that's how he feeds this romantic conception of himself. None of the boys have chosen to be around Walt; for Johnny and Pepper, it's a suffocating factor they carry. Van Sant navigates the distinctions between these two worlds with intelligence and powerful style. This film debut is completely amazing the kind of film moment that was foretelling of the great films that came out of Van Sant’s undeniable talent and vision .