Gus Van Sant’s debut picture heralds his career-long fascination with misfits and dropouts, and was received favourably on the independent film circuit when it was released in 1985. Made with only $20, 000, a newsreel camera and a crew of two, this is a budget piece of film-making that absolutely stands up, showing just how far limited resources can go, frugality even becoming part of a film’s stylistics, with its improvisation, hand-held camera work and black-and white photography.

The protagonist, Walt Curtis (Tim Streeter), is based on the real Walt Curtis, a kind of beat poet of Oregon, who wrote the novella Mala Noche about his own experiences. Walt works behind the counter in a licor and grocery store (though no one ever seems to buy any groceries), as his meandering narrative offers us a glimpse of a dog-eared corner of the US.

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Walt befriends a group of young Mexicans, having become enamoured of one of them - a younger guy called Johnny (Doug Cooeyate). Walt pursues him doggedly in spite of repeated put-downs. Eventually, Johnny disappears, leaving both Walt and another member of the group, Roberto Pepper (Ray Monge), feeling lost in his absence. Roberto then moves into Walt's flat and reluctantly becomes his lover. Walt's hapless attempts at the seduction of both boys are endearing, if painful to watch at times, as Johnny and Roberto run rings around him. Poor Walt can only allow himself to be trampled good-naturedly, and ruminate on his frustrations in a sporadic monologue. Non-actors Cooyate and Monge are absolutely natural as Johnny and Roberto: boyish, macho and volatile, affectionate one moment and spiteful the next. Streeter, too, is convincing in his portrayal of Walt as sensitive but resilient.

Mala Noche rolls out at a leisurely pace and is driven by atmospherics rather than plot, but together the photography and the candid performances make it a moody, raw piece of cinema. Gus Van Sant may have been strapped for cash making this film, but it's rich pickings for the viewer.

Reviewed on: 26 May 2008
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Moody and atmospheric picture about unrequited love on skid row.
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Director: Gus Van Sant

Writer: Walt Curtis, Gus Van Sant

Starring: Doug Cooeyate, Ray Monge, Tim Streeter

Year: 1985

Runtime: 78 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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