Mala Noche. Gus Van Sant. 1986.

It's a sweet-natured world of users and con artists in Gus Van Sant's "Mala Noche."

It’s a sweet-natured world of users and con artists in Gus Van Sant’s “Mala Noche.”

Gus Van San’ts directorial debut (he also wrote it). There is a real sweetness to this movie. Ostensibly, it’s about two people who are using each other: gay convenience store clerk Walt (Tim Streeter) uses money and lodging to manipulate comely Mexican immigrant Johnny (Doug Cooeyate) into spending time with him (Walt wants to sleep with Johnny and hopes he can gently push him into some kind of relationship, even if it’s that of a paid escort); and Johnny uses his sex appeal to manipulate Johnny into providing him with hospitality that he would not otherwise receive in a largely inhospitable world (in one particularly touching sequence, Johnny submits to some intimate roughhousing with Walt and then reaps the benefit of getting to drive his car). The beauty of this film lies in the fact that the mutual manipulation is never presented as particularly callous or cunning on either side. Quite to the contrary, the manipulation is more used as a pretense for these lonely souls to spend time together, to receive human contact from one another and to share something that racial, social and sexual lines would normally preclude them from sharing. They’re all in on the con, and none of them seem to really care – at the end of the day, they all want connection and some reprieve from their shared desolation, and they all remain happy to play their prescribed social roles in order to make it happen.

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