DIRECTED BY: Vincent Gallo
FEATURING: Vincent Gallo, Christina Ricci, Anjelica Huston, Ben Gazzara, Mickey Rourke
PLOT: When Billy Brown looses a $10,000 bet he can’t pay for the Buffalo Bills to win the Superbowl, he’s forced to do prison time for a crime he didn’t commit; when he’s released from jail, he kidnaps a random girl to pretend to be his wife in order to pull the wool over the eyes of his unwitting parents, who think he’s working for the government.
WHY IT SHOULDN’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s not a scrap of strange and fantastic here, and sometimes the stark realism is agonizing and tedious. Vincent Gallo portrays Buffalo, New York as a soulless town with a cast of idiots. Buffalo ’66 plays like a Daniel Clowes comic but without the eccentricity: dazed and dissociated people wander through a wasteland of football, TV, chain diners, and strip joints. Unlike in Clowes, the protagonist comes out of it a changed man.
COMMENTS: Vincent Gallo plays Billy Brown, a guy who really needs to pee. He spends nearly the first twenty minutes of the movie looking for a place to go and, in the process, reveals that he’s an incorrigible jerk by beating up a stranger in a bathroom he deems a “faggot” and kidnapping a girl to pass off as his wife. Perpetually peeved, Billy even bothers to complain about how filthy the windshield is during the kidnapping in which he also fusses about how he can’t drive her “shifter car.” Finally, once in a residential neighborhood, Billy gets out of the car and pees, releasing his anger and annoyance in urine. But where does it all stem from? Why is this guy such a jerk? Via overlapping flashbacks displayed while Billy lies on a park bench in a monochrome landscape of grey, we watch his monotonous jail time: glimpses of water fountains and chess games. He goes from grey to grey, from the prison to Buffalo, New York, in winter. It’s a place where, in a football-centric household, his parents stare vacantly into space and shove food in his direction. His dad is a retired lounge singer totally uninterested in his son, but he takes a sexual interest in Billy’s fake wife, Layla. Billy’s sugar n’ sunshine mother, dolled up in her Buffalo Bills merchandise, can’t even remember her son’s severe allergy to chocolate. During an uncomfortable bedroom scene in which Layla forces Billy’s dad to sing some show tunes from days gone by, Billy tears up at the sight of a photograph of him as a boy. Underneath his unremitting jerk exterior, he’s a pathetic figure living in the shadow of what could have been, if the Bills had won the Superbowl. As bitter and miserable as he behaves, there’s a child living in him who’s never truly had a chance to grow up.
The film begins with a freeze frame of Billy as a boy, underscored with Gallo’s own song with the lyrics “all my life I’ve been this lonely boy.” When huddling alone in a bathtub in a sleazy motel, Layla remarks that Billy looks “like a little boy” We see Billy teetering under the weight of the tough guy role he feels he has to play through a confused lament in a Denny’s restroom. He’s convinced himself he’ll go into a strip joint and kill the placekicker whose missed field goal has ruined his life, and then kill himself; but then, as if Clarence has come down from heaven to make him appreciate being alive, Billy, the over-grown child and tough guy jerk becomes kind and comfortable in his own skin. In drastic contrast to the painful realism of a film characterized with its grotesque personages, Billy undergoes a quick change in personality: from cantankerous to joyful. This transformation of an inveterately unlovable character changes this film from sour to saccharine, with an artificial sentimentality that couldn’t even warm Frank Capra’s heart.
While Billy may be the main focal point of the film, Chrisina Ricci’s character is infinitely more interesting. Wearing searing blue eyeshadow and a promiscuous blouse to a tap dance lesson, Layla is sex-starved and ready for adventure, so when a scruffy stranger kidnaps her, she resists only a little, putting the bulk of her energy into crafting a romantic history for Billy’s parents. She is the sweet and sincere to oppose Billy’s sour phoniness. His stridency hardly bothers Layla because he’s the only boy who’s ever shown her any attention, so she pays back his nonstop cruelty with love. While Billy’s theme song may be “Lonely Boy,” Layla’s is King Crimson’s “Moonchild,” played during her awkward tap dance number in a bowling alley. This scene portrays her as a beautiful but naïve creature, in violent contrast to Billy’s hackneyed disenchantment.
Although bearing complex and distinct characters, Buffalo ’66‘s artificial resolution rings hollow enough to undermine the power of the miserably real plight of Billy Brown, the embittered protagonist who bet more than he had on a football team his mother taught him to believe in.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…plays like a collision between a lot of half-baked visual ideas and a deep and urgent need… There’s not a thing conventional about this movie.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)