Buffalo '66

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Vincent Gallo

REVIEWED: 09-28-98

As Billy Brown, a just-released ex-con who spent five years in prison paying off a busted bet, Vincent Gallo delivers the artistic credo of Buffalo '66 dragging a kidnapped girl into a photo booth. "Simple pictures," he snaps, not even allowing her to fix her hair. "Simple pictures. This is not glamour. No glamour." Odd words, especially from a rail-thin poster boy who posed for Calvin Klein ads before he joined the movie racket full-time. But there is beauty sometimes in the absence of beauty--in Raymond Carver's gorgeously plain, insinuating prose; in the homely rasp of Tom Waits' voice; in Kathryn Schoepflin's starkly appraising paintings of industrial decay.

That holds true for Gallo himself, a model, musician, and indie leading man (Palookaville) whose pale, wild-eyed, strikingly pointed face calls to mind a vampire prince--if not a tuna-fish mold of Valentino's death mask. Yet when he's onscreen, it's hard to look at anyone else: He makes conventionally attractive actors just seem blah. Buffalo '66, his scroungy, funny, and exciting first film as writer and director, has exactly the same kind of anti-glamour. From the start, it's so grungy that it's weirdly captivating. By the time Gallo's lo-fi joyride cruises to a stop, you've been so beguiled by its surprises, wrong turns, and chance encounters that you'd be disappointed by something more carefully worked out.

Gallo's Billy has been on a losing streak without end, dating back to the day he lost 10 large on a Buffalo Bills game when their ace place-kicker bungled a field goal. To clear the debt, the bookie (just the right amount of Mickey Rourke for seasoning) gets Billy to take the rap for a cohort's crime. After five years in jail, Billy vows to plug the place-kicker with a teensy little pistol he's got stashed away. First, though, he has to find a bathroom, and after that he must find a "wife" to show to his horrible parents (a creepily amusing Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston). He snatches a tap-dance student, Layla (Christina Ricci), who proves to be a willing accomplice--even a loving one.

Billy can't get over the past, and neither can anyone else: His Bills-obsessed mom hasn't forgiven him for making her miss the big game in '66 (she was in labor), and his dad laments a failed singing career. Even the place-kicker's strip club carries a recorded apology for the missed goal. From cheap hotels to Denny's, the movie's Buffalo never quite moved forward: It's as stubbornly outdated as the prog-rock nuggets on the soundtrack. It's a melancholic world, but Gallo's moviemaking fever takes the chill off.

From the bold opening credits, there's a restless, immodest personality behind every shot, even the ones that seem clumsy or show-offy. Gallo wants us to know the frame ain't big enough to contain his movie: The shape of the frame is always changing or closing in, and sometimes background stories will appear in a separate window. With cinematographer Lance Acord and editor Curtiss Clayton, he plays with slow motion, with jump cuts, with long takes and changing focus; the visual experimentation is inseparable from the movie's anything-goes spirit. Sometimes it's crude--c'mon, a visual comparison between Layla's breasts and a bowling ball in a polisher?--but it's never uninteresting.

Ranting throughout in semi-improvised outbursts, Gallo makes Billy's pettiness explosively comic: He's not above snapping at Layla when she laughs at his bowling, and he's not above sulking when she rolls a strike. The movie might seem grotesquely narcissistic if Gallo didn't allow so much room for the other players. He's especially generous to the amazing Christina Ricci, who for once gets to play a figure of nurturing goodness, and does so in such a radiant way that her baby-doll voluptuousness seems angelic. The ubiquitous Kevin Corrigan has an unsettling cameo as a slow-witted buddy, and Jan-Michael Vincent's brief appearance as a bowling-alley clerk is affecting, if mostly for his ravaged, uncertain presence.

It's hard to tell from Buffalo '66 whether Vincent Gallo has another movie in him: He's dumped in parts of every filmmaker who ever affected him, from Cassavetes to Peter Greenaway, and his quirky road movie zips so widely across the map you can't imagine another framework loose enough to indulge his squirrelly gifts. Be encouraged, however, by a dizzyingly happy ending in which Gallo shows that he finds cataclysmic violence laughable and redemption possible for even the biggest loser. Buffalo '66 may be a mess, but often enough it's a beautiful mess.

--Jim Ridley

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