"I wanna show him that I'm gay for him," Walt (Tim Streeter) says early on in Mala Noche. He's in love with a fresh-off-the-train Mexican named Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), but of course that isn't true. In writer/director Gus Van Sant's world, love is a sad, funny whimper, spoken for affect, as when River Phoenix huddles next to Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho, trying to express feeling in a hustler's cold language: "I really wanna kiss you, man." Real love is never satisfied, and sex is always painful, which is Van Sant's tragic-poetic view of gay culture condensed into an image, from the two disillusioned youths soaping each other up in Elephant to the anxious physical encounter between two friends lost in the desert in Gerry. You can't find love until you find home, and none of Van Sant's characters can even find themselves.
Armond White recently wrote that Mala Noche "unabashedly romanticizes Walt's gay attraction to Johnny." To be sure, it's Van Sant's most picturesque work: Shot in stark black and white, the movie plays like a reverie to Walt's white, privileged lust. A simmering pot of water and the dewy surfaces of Portland become wistful metaphors for Walt's unrequited crush. His daydreaming voiceover is echoed in the textures of city life, a la Woody Allen's Manhattan, but while, almost 30 years later, Allen's best film still feels like a pretty paean to his own ego, Mala Noche packs intellectual honesty. Van Sant understands how Walt's presumptuous come-ons—offering Johnny $15 for a night's fuck—are wound up in the destructiveness of the gay underclass, and so his story moves with the cyclical motions of a bad night (mala noche) or, more appropriately, a bad dream.