Before Gus Van Sant assumed the role of indie figurehead with earnestly progressive biopics and earnestly plotless art-house fodder, he made low-budget films about marginal people with risky lifestyles. There were three of them: Mala Noche (the first), Drugstore Cowboy (by far the best), and My Own Private Idaho (watchable, but already starting to lose the plot). Mala Noche is about a grungy grocery store clerk who becomes attracted to, and wants to be accepted by, a group of illegal immigrants from Mexico.
Van Sant's use of black-and-white in this film was largely dictated by budget constraints, but it effectively uses darkness to make the city look dangerous. The use of shadow may have been influenced by underground photography, e.g. Larry Clark's Tulsa; another apparent influence is Coppola's Rumble Fish. The camerawork is dynamic, with frequent cuts that create a fragmented sensation. Much of the score, especially in the first half, contributes to that disconnected feeling with monotone, droning acoustic guitars (this style is straight out of Rumble Fish). The depiction of the sex scene is quite creative (and was later reused in My Own Private Idaho): the camera coyly shows close-ups of skin, with extremely quick cuts that make the images look abstract.
The weakest aspect of the film is the occasional narration. In voice-over, Walt says stuff like, "I find this sad and absurd," referring to the Mexicans' distrust of him, or, "A gringo like me can never understand." I suppose there might have been a way to say those lines effectively, but the way he says them sounds smug. His tone on "absurd" has the sneer of an art-school drop-out who is attempting to use high diction in order to affect a poetic tone. This weakness runs throughout Van Sant's work. My Own Private Idaho is especially egregious, lifting Shakespeare quotes and sticking them in between vulgar incidental dialogue. In Mala Noche, it's a bit more realistic in the sense that there is a certain type of person who might actually think in those terms, exactly the kind of person who would push himself to emotions that he knows full well will go unrequited. But unfortunately, because there's not much dialogue (the Mexicans don't speak English), the flat narration is the film's primary way of showing Walt's thoughts, and it's just not very appealing.
Much better are some of the incidental scenes. A few times, the camera lingers on shots of the Mexican guys play-fighting and laughing. Somehow, this exactly nails the "authentic" air that Van Sant wanted. One can perceive some of the rough, immediate atmosphere that these people live in.
The way Van Sant depicts Walt's relationship with the Mexicans is convincing. It is absolutely clear that they never take him seriously. Once they figure out that he means them no harm, they take advantage of him. They are always contemptuous, as in the scene where they leave Walt standing in the road, and taunt him by stopping his own car a way down. Even their friendly moods can instantly turn to hostility. The film is completely matter-of-fact about this, and treats it as a law of life, so immutable that it doesn't warrant discussion.
Walt fully understands that he's being used. He says once that he "knows" that he is Roberto's friend, but this is in one of the voice-over narrations, and the listless tone takes all the joy out of the statement. The very nature of his "love" is peculiar. The performance does not make it seem like an emotional love. He's willing to crawl on his hands and knees to demonstrate his loyalty, but he also complains to his friends about how Mexicans allegedly don't have any "fantasies" or "erotic friendships." This statement in particular makes his love seem arbitrary, like he's winding himself up in this way out of boredom, or perhaps out of some aestheticist desire to defiantly reaffirm his marginal status. River Phoenix's character in My Own Private Idaho is similar -- there is a sense that, out of self-loathing, he doesn't really care who comes along, whether male or female, as long as it's someone who is sure to never return his affection.
Perhaps that is the reason why the plot seems to run out of energy in the second half. There is no dramatic climax or resolution. The last scene with Roberto may have been intended as one, but the film leads one to believe that there will be a bigger violent payoff in the scene where Walt reads the newspaper to the Mexicans. However, the way the film does it is certainly more realistic. The real reason why the film flags toward the end is because it doesn't really give more than a sketch of Walt's life, so without the Mexicans, there's no way to convey a sense of the dingy world that Van Sant had in mind. Instead, the film unfortunately begins to resemble Leos Carax's Boy Meets Girl, a tedious black-and-white art-house exercise.
Mala Noche is not an unsung masterpiece. Drugstore Cowboy is better in every way, and I'd recommend it over Mala Noche unless you're really interested in the subject matter or in low-budget film-making. But if you are, then Mala Noche does have certain narrow strengths, and an outline of a directorial vision that was already nearly gone by Van Sant's third film.