Mala Noche (1986)

mala noche poster 1986 movie
7.0 Overall Score
Story: 7/10
Acting : 6/10
Visuals: 8/10

Edgy, interesting

Weak acting, underdeveloped story

Movie Info

Movie Name: Mala Noche

Studio:  Gus Van Sant

Genre(s): Drama

Release Date(s):  February 1986 (Berlin International Film Festival)/May 4, 1988 (US)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

mala noche tim streeter gus van sant

Sorry…they aren’t into you

Walt Curtis (Tim Streeter) works at a store and spends his time having crushes on his young customers.  When two immigrant Mexican boys Johnny (Doug Cooeyate) and Roberto Pepper (Ray Monge) come into his store, Walt finds himself entangled in their lives.  As Walt tries to help Pepper and Johnny, he is emotionally attached…but Johnny and Pepper’s emotions are still a mystery.

Directed and produced by Gus Van Sant, Mala Noche is an independent drama.  The first film of Van Sant is an adaptation of the 1977 semi-autobiographical Mala Noche:  And Other “Illegal” Adventures by Walt Curtis (who appears briefly in the film as George).  The film was released in festivals, and the Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #407).

I’m not the biggest Gus Van Sant fan.  His work is good, but it is often hit or miss for me.  This initial outing shows a lot of skill but is a like a lot of his other work.  It is edgy and different and ahead of its time, but it also feels like there is something missing.

mala noche doug cooeyate ray monge

“Hey Pepper, this white guy is crazy…”

The movie is all about heart and power.  Curtis is completely into Johnny and settles for the affection (though limited) given by Pepper…despite this, it feels like the movie lacks heart.  It is a reflection as Richard comes to terms with his relationship with the two young men, but it is presented in such a bland way that it just plods.  The film is short, but it also feels like it could have been another thirty minutes longer to help flesh out the characters.

The other problem is that time hasn’t been kind to movie.  While a story starring a homosexual lead might be ahead of its time (especially in 1985 when fears and AIDS were the only way gay characters were presented), but Curtis comes off as a bit of a groomer.  Both Johnny and Pepper don’t like him and are using him as well, but it feels like an uneven level of power since Johnny and Pepper are in the country illegally, and though he doesn’t flaunt that, Curtis always has the higher hand as a result.

mala noche tim streeter portland

I suppose we should give him his car back

The movie was shot in and around Portland, and Van Sant doesn’t use conventional shooting methods.  There are jump shots, weird takes, and strange edits.  It works (in general) with the storytelling of the film, but the film looks best when Van Sant isn’t being experimental.  He has a good eye for framework and style (the road and stolen car sequence for example), and I wish he had potentially streamlined a bit more of this into the film.

Regardless of what you think, Mala Noche does provide an interesting viewing.  It is a film that can be debated and discussed after being finished and one person might see it different than other person (and those are often the traits of a solid film).  It is odd, poorly acted, and different, but it still is worth seeking out.  I’m not really onboard with it, but I’m glad I saw it.  Van Sant’s next feature film Drugstore Cowboy in 1989 really put him on the map.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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