Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
I went into Buffalo ‘66 with a strike against it. After all, writer/director/star Vincent Gallo is the guy who wished cancer on Roger Ebert when Ebert gave The Brown Bunny a bad review. Gallo is the kind of a guy who is convinced that he can’t do anything that isn’t perfect. In short, in my brain, Vincent Gallo is exactly the guy who he is in this film. He’s completely unlikable, the very definition of a douchebag.
Buffalo ‘66 is an oddball of a film. Billy Brown (Gallo) has been released from a five-year stint in prison for a crime he confessed to but didn’t commit. His parents, who barely acknowledged his existence when he was a child, are unaware of his time in prison. This is because Billy has woven an intricate web of lies for the past five years, claiming a life that does not exist. In his artificial world, Billy has a loving wife and a high-paid job with the government that forces him to travel frequently.
Back in Buffalo, Billy has only a couple of things on his mind. He wants a quick stopover at his parents to remind them of his existence, and he wants to kill Scott Woods (Bob Wahl), the former kicker for the Bills who missed a field goal in the Super Bowl and destroyed the last five years of Billy’s life (all of this eventually coming out in the narrative). When his mother insists that he bring his wife for the visit, Billy is pushed into a desperate gamble. He kidnaps a young woman named Layla (Christina Ricci) from a dance school and convinces her to play act as his adoring wife for the visit back home.
His parents are about as he remembers them, completely at a distance and only barely aware of his existence. Neither of them remember much about his childhood. His mother (a down market Angelica Huston) forgets about his severe chocolate allergy. His father (Ben Gazzara) forgets that he killed Billy’s puppy to teach him responsibility. Layla, pretending to be someone named Wendy Balsam, manages to charm them and spins her own web of fanciful lies to impress her faux in-laws. When Billy and Layla/Wendy leave, Billy decides to go bowling to kill time until it’s time to kill Scott Woods.
Through all of this, Layla stays with him despite having plenty of opportunity to leave and end the kidnapping. In something like an immediate case of Stockholm Syndrome, it’s evident that Layla is attracted to Billy despite his emotional cruelty to her. Slowly, over time and various encounters around Buffalo, she breaks down the walls of pain and frustration and loneliness that has wrapped him up his entire life.
The biggest, most evident problem with Buffalo ‘66 is the unbelievable nature of the script. There’s no good reason to suspect that Layla would fall for someone like Billy or put up with the mountains of abuse he doles out on her at regular intervals. And yet a part of any film from the perspective of the audience is its willing suspension of disbelief. We have to be willing to accept Layla and Billy as they are presented to us, and for a film that is genuinely this inventive and interesting, I’m willing to go with it.
Why? Because there really are some lovely moments here. This is particularly true of the impromptu tapdance in the bowling alley. It simply happens, almost as a scene out of a musical. While Billy is frustrated by the slow speed of the ball return and his stuck lane, Layla gets up and stands against a pole and performs, suddenly bathed in a soft spotlight. It’s apropos of nothing, and yet it’s wonderful in its own way.
And then the end comes and you’re not ready for it. Kind of. You know what I mean if you’ve seen it.
As much as I dislike almost every character in this film, it’s the characters who really sell it. Billy’s mother is obsessed with the Buffalo Bills (leading one to conclude that this might be the source of her son’s name) to the point of mania. It’s not quite believable, and yet I know fans like this exist. His father is a creeper and an evident pervert, and it seems too pat for the story, and yet it works, too.
Once again, I need to remind myself that going into a film with a bias often doesn’t really pay off. Buffalo ‘66 despite my initially high annoyance level at Billy as a character eventually won me over much as Billy himself wins over Layla. While the story isn’t very believable, the film itself is damnably inventive, making great use of flashbacks and switches in perspective that it’s impossible not to be impressed by it.
Why to watch Buffalo ‘66: It’s the oddest narrative you’ll almost believe.
Why not to watch: So. Much. Annoyance.