Mala Noche (1986)

Directed by Gus Van Sant


In Mala Noche, people are destined to get hurt.  Walt (Tim Streeter) falls in love with a Mexican immigrant named Johnny and later his friend Pepper, and he is more interested in their pain and exclusion from a heteronormative world dominated by white men than he is the actual person.

Over the course of one night, Walt falls for Johnny, tries to pay to sleep with him and then sleeps with Pepper instead, a consolation prize.  The next day he struts through the streets, cocky and full of life while narrating to the audience how they probably think they pulled a fast one off on the “gringo,” since they stole $10 from his pants pocket.  But Walt claims to be happy that they got the money, because they could use it more than he can.

He continues to pursue Johnny even though the boy shows no interest in him.  To make that clear, Johnny always keeps Pepper around with him, either afraid or unwilling to be alone with Walt who is extremely forward all the time.

Walt, at various times, is both in awe of Johnny and Pepper and deathly afraid of them, when they drive too fast or struggle to drive at all.  Though he insists he’s in love with Johnny, he is really only concerned with the degree to which Johnny has been cast to the fringes of society, either because it mirrors the way he sees himself or because he’s making up for something.  When Johnny disappears from his life, Walt just moves onto Pepper.  He teaches the boy to drive, and they grow awkwardly close in a way that suggests Pepper loves Walt, but only so much.  He’s constantly keeping Walt just out of arm’s reach, but Walt puts up with it.

One night Pepper is shot by the police due to criminal activity neither we nor Walt was aware of.  It’s just as sudden a departure as Johnny’s, but a little while later, Johnny returns.  He excitedly tells Walt the story of how he was deported but then worked his way back up to Portland, illegally hitching a ride on a train as he and Pepper (and a third friend who was nearly killed by the police) did on their initial trip up north.

When Walt tells Johnny that Pepper was killed, Johnny scratches “Puto” (faggot) on Walt’s door and storms away.  The film ends when Walt is riding in a car with a female friend of his and passes Johnny on the street.  He calls out to him to visit him at his store sometime without stopping the car.  Walt drives away, carefree with Johnny standing alone on the street corner watching him go.

Walt tells us (through voice over) how much he loves Johnny, but it’s hard to believe him.  He feels very whimsical, and it’s safe to assume he has plenty of passing infatuations.  The way he talks about Johnny and Pepper feels like the perspective of someone not only looking in from the outside but also looking down.  He is taken with Johnny’s and Pepper’s story of police brutality on their voyage up to Portland, and he even seems to fall in love with their language (Spanish) despite not speaking it himself.  He loves the words that roll off his tongue even though he doesn’t understand what he’s saying half the time.

Interestingly enough, as the story goes on, Walt and Johnny do begin to understand each other despite the language barrier.  We’re given subtitles for what Johnny and Pepper are saying, but there is never any translation for Walt.  He just kind of gets it.

The language barrier (as well as cultural differences) served as a clear dividing line between Walt and Johnny, letting us know that there will always be something standing between them.  It’s very much like the relationship between Scott and Mike in Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho (1991).

These two films, along with what I can remember of Drugstore Cowboy (1989) are all varying degrees of tragic.  In each instance, we watch something blossom which I think we’re supposed to understand is unsustainable, and then the second half of the film is how the characters deal with the fallout.  Once you get the idea of where Van Sant is headed, you know Scott and Mike won’t end up together just like Walt and Johnny/Pepper won’t live happily after ever.

The films, then, are about that transition into whatever comes next, though whatever comes next often seems like a repeat of what we just saw.  The tragedy isn’t necessarily in the end of the relationship, but rather in the wildly different expectations of the two people involved.  Like Scott in My Own Private Idaho, Walt moves on when the story ends because his privilege allows this.  Johnny, on the other hand, has no choice.  He wasn’t living a chosen life, like Walt, but rather the only one he was given.

We don’t know much about Walt, but there is an underlying sense (mainly his cockiness) that he could do something else with his life if he really wanted to.  Even the brazenness with which he pursues Johnny comes across as that of someone who expects to get what he wants.  He takes what he wants because he knows how to let it go when he wants.  Other characters, like possibly Johnny or Pepper, don’t reach out as far because things have a habit of sticking to them.  Okay, I don’t really know what that means, but that’s what it feels like.  In other words, Walt dabbles while Johnny and Pepper live.

Later in the film, after Pepper’s death, Johnny tells Walt that his name was actually Papa (because he loved fries, papas fritas), and Walt realizes he didn’t know something incredibly basic about the guy he was sleeping with.  It’s an illustration more for the audience than for Walt that he was never as in love with the guy as he would’ve claimed.

The clearest example of who these characters are and where they’re relegated in life is the way they leave the story.  Johnny (the first time) suddenly disappears because he was deported, and Pepper is shot and killed by the police.  They are taken down by institutions that have no reason to harm Walt.  In one scene he walks past a cop who stares at him menacingly, but Walt has no real reason to fear them while the other two do.

Walt leaves the story when he decides to drive away, as if none of this ever happened.  When he nonchalantly tells Johnny to stop by his store sometime, you get the impression that all the characters we’ve seen him interact with over the cashier are people he may have had some kind of relationship (whether romantic or platonic) with, and now they’re just visitors in his store like he was a visitor in their lives.


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