Warming to the work of Vincent Gallo was something I never expected to find myself succumbing to. My early knowledge of him had been shaped by his self cultivated ‘enfant terrible’ of indie film image, his various rants on the state of cinema, his cameo roles in music video’s such as Glassjaw’s “Cosmopolitan Bloodloss” and his prominent features, a Brando cool overwhelmed by loathing and cynical Lower East Side hipster rat snark.
I was surprised then when I first watched one of his self directed efforts The Brown Bunny (2003) to find a minimal, wistful, malaise led road movie, the only hints of the Gallo i’d been previously privy to, were in the notorious ending featuring his then girlfriend Chloë Sevigny, and so I was led to finally seeing his directorial debut Buffalo 66, and you know what, it’s a good film, in fact on a repeat viewing, it’s actually a pretty great film.
Gallo is Billy, released from prison after 5 years (covering for someone else’s crime because of a large gambling debt); he has somehow convinced his parents that he has been working away on a ‘top secret assignment’ for the last 5 years. Upon arrival in his home town he makes the seemingly extreme decision to kidnap a woman Layla (Christina Ricci) to pose as his wife ‘Wendy’ and complete the delusion of his parents.
The Gallo I saw here on first viewing was the detestable narcissist I had previously envisaged, it was only on a second viewing that this early part of the film began to fit within the scope of the rest of the picture for me. Gallo comes running out of the blocks full of impotent rage. The film after opening with his release from his stretch; spends the next 15 minutes upon his arrival in Buffalo, on a Kafka like futile search for an open toilet facility, an increasingly comical scenario that concludes with an odd homophobic attack/rant. This scene at first just makes us think “typical asshole Gallo” and has been much derided in reviews of the film, but on subsequent viewings I see it more as a release for all the pent up anger, fear and torment that an opening montage showed us that he suffered during his prison term.
Gallo’s hometown of Buffalo is presented as Nowhere U.S.A. A cold post-industrial dystopia, a land of permanent late winter, where the sun never shows from behind the gunmetal cloud cover and a perfectly suitable location for matching the palate of the early 70’s cinema that the fine cinematography recalls, there are echoes of the Boston of Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1974) and the eastern seaboard journey of Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973). The city is painted as a landscape of broken dreams and beer stained dollar bills, where the local football team offer the only outlet of passion for the malcontent residents, and it’s this football team (specifically the 1966 Buffalo team of the title and a later incarnation discussed shortly) that prove pivotal in shaping Billy’s livid existence.
We finally meet Billy’s parents, perfectly embodied by Angelica Houston and Ben Gazarra (whose presence makes the viewer no doubt intentionally think of Cassavettes). Dad is a failed crooner, and a short tempered puppy killer, Mom couldn’t care less about Billy’s wellbeing, thinking only of her beloved Buffalo Bills. A well edited scene has Mom state how she wishes she’d never had Billy (due to missing a vital Super Bowl winning game) whilst the commentator of the game playing in the background states “he’ll have to live with that the rest of his life”. This 20 minute centre piece of the film helps us begin to understand Billy’s relentless rage, before meeting his parents, he hilariously makes Layla/Wendy observe his ridiculously specific demands for pleasing them, he clearly craves their approval, he craves for love, but during an increasingly ill tempered meal, the image of his ‘family’ life disintegrates.
We find that Billy’s other motivation for returning to Buffalo, has become a twisted revenge mission on a Scott Woods, the spot kicker who he blames for losing him the bet that left him in hock to the local dons, of course this bet was placed on the Buffalo Bills, the team casting a permanent shadow over his life.
Before he can get around to enacting this revenge though, he and Layla stumble through several downtrodden Buffalo locations together, the bowling alley (in which we receive a wonderful musical interlude courtesy of King Crimson, a shoestring Busby Berkeley number gone prog-rock that somehow fits with the films verisimilitude), a greasy spoon cafe, a 2 dollar photo booth, and finally a makeshift motel room, throughout these scenes Billy continues to rant, rave, demand, all whilst Wendy patiently expresses her love for him, we gradually strip away at the layers of his damage, we find out about his youthful crush on the real Wendy (embodied by Rosanna Arquette as a small town bloodsucker) and his longing to be wanted, finally he breaks, is he truly being offered the love he has never known, could he, Billy Brown actually be loved?
The finale takes us to a showdown with Scott Woods in a strip bar of the gold lamé and swinging tassels variety where Billy must decide between love or annihilation, the scene builds like a low budget Fellini bacchanal, a sweaty grand guignol of gross caricatures. Billy draws his pistol, his decision is made...
The closing scene proves to be the one that truly won me over, Billy has made his choice and enters a doughnut shop, buzzing with the realisation he has discovered what love feels like, he has a newfound empathy, everyone is his friend, there is a powdered wide eyed rush to his speech, he is imbued with generosity, pure unfiltered happiness, the euphoric joy that comes with knowing you’ve found someone, not just someone, the one! You get me? Everyone deserves a shot at that feeling, even little asshole Billy, he’s in love and we are overwhelmed with happiness for him, what happened? End credits.