Most movie buffs were introduced to Gus Van Sant via his 1989 arthouse hit Drugstore Cowboy, a funny, moving '70s period piece about strung-out hustlers and crooks in the Pacific Northwest. In the decade that followed, Van Sant courted the mainstream with Good Will Hunting and went weird with My Own Private Idaho, yet he always maintained a fundamental faith in narrative, until his career took a seemingly odd turn toward lyrical, abstract impressionism with Gerry and Elephant. But watching Van Sant's micro-budgeted 1985 feature debut Mala Noche, his filmography comes into clearer focus. The more elusive films now fit the Van Sant puzzle neatly, while the likes of Finding Forrester and To Die For don't.
Mala Noche's technique is far rawer than latter-day Van Sant. Shot in grainy black and white for $25,000, Mala Noche follows liquor-store clerk and aspiring writer Tim Streeter as he pursues a sexual liaison with dreamy Mexican immigrant Doug Cooeyate. When Cooeyate spurns his advances, Streeter plies him and his friends with money, food, transportation, and booze, becoming a kind of low-rent sugar daddy for Portland's whole illegal-immigrant community. Van Sant holds all their faces in tight, off-center close-ups, cutting quickly between people and objects to create a sense of underclass Portland's simultaneous reality and unreality. (In one stunning shot, glimpsed just for a second, streetlight-illuminated raindrops resemble a shower of stars.)
Like a lot of late '70s/early '80s American indies, Mala Noche is more a collection of intermittently exciting scenes than a proper movie, and without the formal mastery of latter-day Van Sant, even those good scenes look a little ragtag. But the film has a refreshing honesty. At one point, Streeter pays Cooeyate's friend Ray Monge for sex in order to get close to the man he loves by proxy, and when Monge treats him roughly, the specificity of the situation and Streeter's bemused reaction feel spontaneous and real. Like so many of Van Sant's films, Mala Noche is about a person getting in too deep while pursuing his own selfish obsessions, but even though the gutter-poet Streeter is more self-aware than the typical Van Sant protagonist, he still can't stop trying to make pets of creatures that bite.
Key features: An expository interview with Van Sant and a rambling hourlong Bill Plympton documentary about Mala Noche author Walt Curtis.