“You make me look bad… I will never ever talk to you again, ever. But if you do a good job, well, then you can be my best friend. My best friend that I’ve ever had.” —Vincent Gallo, Buffalo ‘66
In the Apatow Age, stories of arrested development have become something worse than commonplace, as slobby man-children in their late 20s or 30s are dragged kicking and screaming into the grown-up world of stable relationships and sober responsibilities. But the point where they’re stuck is always the same: their late teens or early college years, when they were old enough to drive, procure drugs and alcohol, and fool around with different women without feeling remotely inclined to anchor themselves to any one in particular. As an audience, we’re invited to laugh at how much they cling to immature habits, but the fantasy of being that age forever, with idle days occupied mostly by cartoons and bong hits, has an undeniable appeal, too. In other words, these men are immature, but they aren’t freaks.
Someone like Billy Brown, the troubled, petulant hero of Vincent Gallo’s directorial debut, Buffalo ’66, is a much more difficult case. As played by Gallo, who also scripted and composed the music, Billy isn’t a man who’s willfully immature and clinging to some carefree time in early adulthood, but someone whose emotional growth was stunted at a much younger age. The first shot of the movie is a photograph of Billy at age 7—the only photograph his monstrous parents have of him, we later discover—and if that doesn’t make his arrested development clear enough, Gallo includes a song with the lyric “All my life I’ve been a lonely boy.” Gallo wants the audience to feel sympathy and pity for Billy, but it’s a credit to the film that he doesn’t make it easy. Much like the infantile beast played by Tom Green in the My Year Of Flops favorite Freddy Got Fingered, Billy behaves in an estranging, not relatable, and often repulsive way. There’s nothing charming about a man acting like a preadolescent boy, but he does have an innocence that makes his bullying and narcissism forgivable. Or at least gives them context.
More on narcissism: For many, this is going to be the sticking point with anything Gallo does. Ending your own movie by receiving an actual blowjob from a highly respected actress will give you that reputation, and not unfairly. Even ardent Gallo defenders like myself are left to shake our heads when his name pops up a dozen times during the opening credits for The Brown Bunny, a movie he wrote, directed, produced, edited, shot, and presumably catered like a mama bird. But there’s a difference between unexamined narcissism and the kind in Buffalo ’66, where Gallo plays a character whose loneliness and dysfunction is tied to his inability to empathize with anyone but himself. (A trait that Billy has in common with 7-year-old boys, of course.) It’s fair to walk away from Buffalo ’66 cursing Gallo’s self-regard—and his dubious appeal to Christina Ricci’s character, which I’ll get into later—but his abrasiveness risks losing the audience at many points during the film, and that takes courage.
Even for those with a Gallo allergy, Buffalo ’66 remains a distinctive, thrillingly idiosyncratic piece of filmmaking, balancing a strong evocation of blue-collar life with formal experimentation and inspired, dreamlike flights of fancy. (The trailer alone was one of the best movies of 1998.) The opening sequence is a fine example: Billy gets released from prison after serving five years for someone else’s crime, as part of a deal to relieve his gambling debts. As Billy waits in the cold for the only bus into town—tellingly, no one has come to pick him up—Gallo fills the screen with paint-box images of his time in prison, emphasizing the institutional squalor of the place via footage that looks like washed-out, fluorescent-lit home movies. It’s a creative, economical way to access Billy’s experiences without being burdened by flashbacks.
From these austere beginnings, the early scenes in Buffalo ’66 concern Billy’s frustrated attempts to use the bathroom, looking a lot like a little kid who covers his bladder with one hand and tugs on his mother’s shirt with the other. His search leads him to a dance studio, where he meets Layla, played by Christina Ricci at her most angelic. Billy kidnaps her and forces her to pose as his wife, so he can introduce her to his parents and support the illusion that he’s a successful, happy man. Sooner than you can say “Stockholm Syndrome”—sooner than that, even—Layla warms to her abductor and takes to the role with great enthusiasm, charming Billy’s lecherous father (Ben Gazzara) and his boorish, oblivious, Bills-obsessed mother (Anjelica Huston). Layla goes on and on about how handsome and sweet their son is, asks to see old baby pictures, and spins tall tales about Billy’s success with the CIA. (“Even the president is so proud of him!” she exclaims.)
Here, Gallo asks the audience to take a great leap of faith. Layla’s willingness to go along with the plan, even though she’s been kidnapped and verbally abused, is something of a mystery, unless you believe Gallo’s charisma approaches superhuman. On one level, she’s the classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a beautiful sprite who’s been put on Earth for the sole purpose of salving Billy’s wounded soul. And at times, Gallo seems to acknowledge the MPDG issue by launching into sequences of pure fantasy, like a beautiful scene where she tap-dances in a bowling alley. But really, Gallo is counting on Layla to recognize what we see in him—that behind this petulant, bullying, erratic stray dog of a man is a disarmingly innocent child who never grew up. The line I quoted in the epigram, which comes shortly after Billy kidnaps her, is something no adult would say, and any physical threat he might have imposed on her instantly evaporates. And the more she puts the pieces of his life together—that visit with his parents clarifies a lot, as does an encounter with the woman (Rosanna Arquette) he was infatuated with in grade school—the more their relationship makes sense, at least in the innocent romantic fantasy at the movie’s heart. (Paul Thomas Anderson basically made the same romance four years later with Punch-Drunk Love, but with Adam Sandler as the angry man-child and Emily Watson as the gentle, patient woman who gets him.)
Buffalo ’66 takes place over the course of a single day and night, at the end of which Billy intends to kill Scott Woods, a former Bills place-kicker who botched the game-winning field goal that cost Billy the bet that ultimately landed him in jail. (The Browns take their football seriously. In one scene, Billy’s mother reacts so strongly to taped footage of the kick, it’s as if it were happening live.) The sequence where Billy confronts Woods at a strip club is the film’s most celebrated, and for good reason: The use of Yes’ prog-rock epic “Heart Of The Sunrise” is shockingly incongruous, yet perfectly in keeping with the film’s man-out-of-time spirit, and the frozen tableaux has been aped as recently as The Other Guys. But equally good are the snippy exchanges between Billy and Layla, which are laced with enough humor to make his abusiveness seem like bizarro-world rom-com banter:
Between this and The Brown Bunny, Gallo’s romantic ballads of lonely, bruised men may fairly open him up to charges of self-pity and narcissism, but they’re also undeniably personal and unabashed in how much they reveal about their maker. As a writer and a stylist, Gallo doesn’t follow any conventional indie template: the song choices, the gorgeously bleak ’70s-style photography, the John Cassavetes-like intensity of the melodrama—all evoke an era far removed from contemporary life. The characters in Buffalo ’66 all seem of a different time and place, or perhaps they’re just stuck in the same working-class, wood-paneled universe they’ve known their entire lives. For Billy to break that pattern of despair and failure and find someone willing to “span time” with him is a sweet miracle that Buffalo ’66 works hard to earn.
September 2: American Psycho
September 16: Demonlover
September 30: Death Wish 3