Friday July 17, 1998
Many movies start out with a man being discharged from prison, but "Buffalo '66," Vincent Gallo's compelling debut film as a writer-director, has come up with a way for us to identify immediately with his ex-con: The guy has to urinate and there's no place to do it, a universal predicament.
The guard thinks he's crazy to be asked to let back in the prison to go to the restroom, so there's nothing to do but take the bus and wait till it pulls into the Buffalo, N.Y., terminal--where the men's room is closed for cleaning, natch. Right from the start, too, Gallo has introduced a note of humor that will prove to be absolutely crucial in the telling of a volatile, solitary young man's otherwise bleak struggle to come to terms with himself.
There's nothing like an urgent bladder to fuel an already frustrated, rage-filled man. Gallo's Billy tries to use a bathroom at a dancing school facility only to end up kidnapping one of its pupils.
Billy had been in prison on a foolish fluke and had kept his incarceration secret from the parents, who've ignored him all their lives, but from whom he still craves love and approval. He has told them he is some sort of government agent whose work takes him out of the country for long periods of time. He figures he will impress them all the more if he returns with a beautiful wife.
Fate, for perhaps the first time in his life, has dealt kindly with Billy in the choice of the young woman he has grabbed, and Gallo and his co-writer Alison Bagnall keep us guessing until the final frame as to whether he's going to realize it or not. For Christina Ricci's Layla is not only beautiful, blond and bosomy, but intelligent and needy. She could get away from Billy almost immediately but stays along for the ride out of her own craving for love and attention.
Arriving at his parents' nondescript tract house, Billy is greeted by his father, Jimmy (Ben Gazzara), yelling, "It's your son!" to his wife, Jan (Anjelica Huston), who has spent most of her life glued to the TV rooting for the local football team. Billy has been on bad terms with his father since Jimmy got rid of his 7-year-old son's pet dog for not becoming housebroken quickly enough.
Jan, who can be pleasant enough in her maddeningly obtuse way, has never forgiven her son for being born on the very day in 1966 that her beloved team was last a winner. Gazzara and Huston, as you would expect of actors of their caliber, know how to use humor to keep Jimmy and Jan from becoming all-out monsters. Meanwhile, Layla gets into her role-playing so intensely she charms Billy's parents to the extent that they ignore their son all the more, inflaming his jealousy.
As it turns out, Billy's visit home is but a prologue to his setting in motion a vendetta, which in its sheer childishness reveals Gallo's key point: The child denied parental love and approval is the individual who, in forever trying to win it, will never grow up without a herculean struggle.
Intense, pale, gaunt with haunting light blue eyes, Gallo has been a vivid presence in a number of films, including Abel Ferrera's "The Funeral," a period gangster picture in which he played Mafioso Christopher Walken's fiery, idealistic younger brother. With "Buffalo '66" Gallo does himself credit not only as an actor but also as an equally distinctive filmmaker. He has a terrific instinct as to how much reality and how much fantasy to draw upon in telling his story. Similarly, Gallo and his cinematographer Lance Acord, using color in a shadowy film noir way, express the film's blend of grit and romanticism in striking images found in impersonal, everyday urban settings.
Actors more often than not instinctively know how to present not only themselves but also others to advantage, and Gallo, who also composed his film's spare score, is no exception. Fresh off raves for "The Opposite of Sex," Ricci further establishes her versatility playing a young woman of whom we are told nothing, but who captivates us with her compassion and insight, her determined composure and wisdom beyond her years. (It's Gallo's risky but effective strategy to tell us all about Billy and then let us infer that Layla's experiences must be lots like his.)
Kevin Corrigan is appealing as Billy's dim but dogged loyal pal, and Gallo has come up with sharp cameos for Mickey Rourke, Jan-Michael Vincent and Rosanna Arquette. Alternately satirical and romantic, full of pain and humor, "Buffalo '66" is a winner.
Buffalo '66, 1998. Unrated. A Lions Gate Films presentation. Director-composer Vincent Gallo. Producer Chris Hanley. Executive producers Michael Paseornek. Screenplay by Gallo and Alison Bagnall; from a story by Gallo. Cinematographer Lance Acord. Editor Curtiss Clayton. Costumes Alexis Scott. Production designer Gideon Ponte. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Vincent Gallo as Billy Brown. Christina Ricci as Layla. Anjelica Huston as Jan Brown. Ben Gazzara as Jimmy Brown.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun