Gus Van Sant's "Mala Noche" is so raw and authentically personal that it feels as if it were shot through a peephole. In some ways that's the look of the film too -- concentrated, partially obscured, captured on the sly.
Set on the skid row streets and pay-by-the-night hotels of Portland, Ore., it's so intimate that it comes across almost as an invasion of privacy. Made in 1985 for a scant $25,000, this fresh, wholly original film turns its high-contrast, black-and-white footage into a heightened form of immediacy.
With a few off-angle shots, Van Sant sketches out a world of barflies, transients and rotgut drunks. Working the cash register in the convenience store that functions as the booze and cigarette headquarters for the locals is a romantically inclined young man named Walt (Tim Streeter), who develops a breathless crush on a handsome Mexican boy named Johnny (Doug Cooeyate). Johnny, who's come to Oregon illegally with his friend Pepper (Ray Monge), 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. Walt, who says that most people these days are too far away from the "death aspect," seems to invite Johnny's abuse, or at least accepts bad treatment when it's all that's offered.
What Walt's interested in is a little danger; he longs, it seems, for a bad night. 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.
"Mala Noche" was Van Sant's first feature (his second was last year's "Drugstore Cowboy"), but even here his empathy for fringe-dwelling outsiders and his passionate absorption in the poetic possibilities of the medium are on full display. In places the film has the jazzy abandon of early Godard (particularly when the men jump into Walt's car for a joy ride in the country). And late in the film, 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."
Though the picture is a modest, handmade item, there's nothing underdeveloped here in the filmmaking sensibilities. 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 fueled by Van Sant's romanticism of losers; it's fascinated by the poetic allure of poor beautiful boys riding the rail into the promised land and ending up dead, crumpled on the pavement in the middle of a street, thousands of miles from home.
It's Van Sant's conception of Walt, and the diffident self-awareness in Streeter's performance, that holds these feelings in balance and saves the movie from softheadedness. It lets us see how Walt inflates his infatuation with Johnny for dramatic effect. He's obsessed, yet still he's playacting, hyping his own emotions because that's how he feeds his romantic conception of himself. Nowhere is Walt's place of choice; for Johnny and Pepper, it's a prison they carry with them. And Van Sant navigates the distinctions between these two worlds with intelligence and invigorating style. This is a knockout debut.
Mala Noche, at the Biograph, is unrated.