Mala Noche (1985)

If you thought Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho was a charming gateway to the Portland male hooker scene, you may want to dig even further underground into the world of Mala Noche.

This is the story of a young man, Walt, who falls in love-at-first-sight with Johnny, an even younger Mexican hooker who walks into his shop one day. Walt tries to flirt with Johnny, then directly propositions him, talks his friend into having him over for dinner, then even offers to pay him for sex. Johnny refuses, leaving Walt with his companion Pepper as the next-best option, which Walt takes.

Walt is unphased by Johnny’s rejection though, and goes to great lengths to woo him, ranging from what he sees as subtle manipulation to literally begging on his knees. The bizarre journey sounds too preposterous to be true, but when guided by Walt’s warped narration, almost every decision Walt makes is rooted in his broader scheme to get Johnny (at least, that’s what he tells us). Even after Johnny leaves town, and Walt and Pepper enter an “erotic friendship” (Walt’s words), Walt’s narration still brings up Johnny constantly.

What makes Mala Noche so fascinating is both what it is, and what it isn’t. On paper Walt sounds like a genuine psychopath, but he doesn’t do anything too extreme to get Johnny. His is a story of obsession but not hysteria. A part of Johnny clearly enjoys being pursued. Pepper first tells Walt “No sex,” but several scenes later, his rule shifts to “sex only at nighttime.”

The confounding sense of order and structure is so pleated yet flexible. It’s as if the characters tell themselves they live within boundaries, only to compromise out of them when it’s convenient. Mala Noche is not just a bizarre love triangle, but a thought-provoking piece on how we define ourselves and our actions.