I’ve sat down to start my review of Buffalo ’66 a few times now.
Unsure what to even say about Vincent Gallo’s indie film to end all indie films, I’ve pondered its identity and its impact on me for a few days after first watching it. It’s certainly proved challenging to me.
A good film does a good job exploring unique relationships. Buffalo ’66 is full of them. Fresh out of a five-year stint in prison, Billy (played by the film’s writer/director Gallo) plans to visit his parents. But before he can do that, he has to figure out how to impress his mother and father, who he’s never had a smooth relationship with. And that’s when he kidnaps a local dance student to act as his wife.
Billy gets a surprisingly amount of compliance from the beautiful Layla (Christina Ricci). Yeah, he did have to initially be forceful and threaten her, but for some bizarre reason she clearly felt like acting that day. She goes along for the ride, posing as Billy’s loving wife, a symbol of his successful career. And with that begins one of film’s stranger “romantic” relationships.
The other unique (that’s being nice and not saying weird) relationship is between Billy and his parents. His mother, Jan (Anjelica Huston), is more interested in her Buffalo Bills football action than she is her son. And his father, Jimmy (Ben Gazzara), isn’t easy to impress. There’s enough awkward moments to be shared with everyone when the four of them sit down at the family’s humble kitchen table.
On the television in the background plays a Bills game in black and white – it becomes a pivotal concept for the entire film. Billy’s discontentment with his mother starts and ends at that very game. It’s not a live game – it seems like a repeat. And we learn that’s true when we flash back in time and Billy is watching the same game – which he happened to bet thousands of dollars he doesn’t have on – and Scott Wood misses a last-minute kick, sending Billy spiraling into anger and eventually becoming the reason he lands in jail.
And so the four sit down for a very awkward dinner conversation that’s the film’s cream of the crop segment. The camera passes around from seat to seat, placing you in the moment and in a situation you really don’t want to be in the middle of. Gallo’s screenplay really pushes things forward. It’s hard to watch, but it’s brutal honesty about family and disappointment is a spot on assessment of the situation and engaging.
But the entire time what develops is a budding relationship between Billy and the recently-kidnapped Layla. What Layla sees inside the distant and blunt Billy is a hurt and innocent man. Billy is damaged goods, thanks to his prison and his parents. But Layla, who has just spent a few minutes of time with a man who kidnapped her, is angelic in her response, care and viewpoint of Billy. Nothing is ever spoken of about Layla’s life outside her dance class, but I’d be willing to be within her character is a similar struggle with proving to your parents that you’re worth something. She overhears Billy’s initial phone call home to his parents – a caravan of lies and exaggerations – which might have shaped her willingness to go along for the ride and pretend to be his wife.
Because Gallo’s screenplay doesn’t really entire into Layla’s personal life and because Billy is too self-centered to actually ask any questions about her upbringing, the two of them leave Billy’s childhood home the same way they began. The rest of the film watches their very new relationship of one day grow and crumble and grow again. It’s magically weird and one of my favorite bizarre relationships ever seen on screen.
Buffalo ’66 provides some really tender, beautiful but still haunting moments that really take you out of the film for a minute. Take, for instance, this dance scene from the bowling alley. The lights go down, a spotlight points on Layla. We’re taken from a moment of reality to a moment of fantasy. Layla begins to tap dance to King Crimson’s “Moonchild,” as bizarre of a song choice as I’ve seen for this kind of moment. But what is created is absolutely entrancing, subtlety erotic and one of the film’s most memorable moments. Another great scene is when Jimmy gives Layla a solo vocal performance in his bedroom. Or at least tricks her into thinking it’s one. It’s very surreal and Gallo’s direction for this, and the entire film, should be commended.
There’s more to Buffalo ’66, but I’d rather leave it there. For as layered as this one is, it’s still pretty simple on its surface. There’s not much else like it.