Buffalo ’66 (1998)

I won’t lie, I prepared myself to hate Buffalo ‘ 66. Director Vincent Gallo’s films have been described as borrowing from David Lynch and John Cassavetes, although he says that this is false as he doesn’t really like either of them. Gallo has a pretty bad reputation as a sex-crazed narcissistic racist, and he ended up alienating most of the people he worked with on this film. With this film described as ‘semi-autobiographical’, I expected a misogynistic, narcissistic grungy piece. And yeah, I got that but I also ended up kind of adoring it.

I found myself trying to explain this film to my mother, as she’d caught part of the scene at Billy’s parents’ house and was intrigued. It was actually difficult to describe what happens in Buffalo ’66, because there’s so many little details that make the film what it is. A bare bones description of it would involve Gallo’s character, Billy Brown, leaving prison, kidnapping a girl (Christina Ricci) to be his fake wife in front of his parents and looking to kill the footballer who lost the Super Bowl for the Buffalo Bills, inadvertently sending Billy to prison. That synopsis leaves out so much of the magic of this film, which I’m going to now try to examine as six little things.

Just a note on this: I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions that I’m very cautious about calling this film a ‘love story’. I know that film is often about escapism but let’s not try and escape the fact that Billy Brown has kidnapped Layla and does a number of rather unsavoury things in general. This is very male-fantasy, Beauty and the Beast kind of stuff. That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable or a good piece of filmmaking, but rather something to keep in mind.

(Spoilers ahead).

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1) “If you make a fool out of me, I swear to God, I’ll kill you right there. Boom! Right in front of Mommy and Daddy. And I’ll tell you something else, you make me look bad… I will never ever talk to you again, ever.” It was from this darkly humourous point early on that I realised that there was more to Billy Brown (and indeed Buffalo ’66) than met the eye.

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2) Billy’s mom (an interesting performance by Anjelica Huston) laments missing the Buffaloes’ first Super Bowl win in 30 years because she was giving birth to Billy, “I wish I never had him”. To bring it home, you can hear the commentator from the TV saying “He’ll have to live with that for the rest of his life.” Combined with the animal abuse, the neglect and paranoia, you’re realising that Billy didn’t exactly have a normal, loving upbringing.

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3) The musical interludes. Whether it’s father Ben Gazzara miming to an old record (yes, more Ben Gazzara) or Layla’s little dance at the bowling alley, it almost feels as if we’re getting a look into the other characters’ mind and taking a break from the main story, considering this is a film definitely dedicated to its protagonist.

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4) Most of us have had that uncomfortable moment where we’ve bumped into someone from our past and felt embarrassed about it. Billy’s encounter with old crush Rosanna Arquette at Denny’s is awkward, and provides us with a further link to the film’s storyline as well as Billy’s life, down to his choice of Layla’s fake name.

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5) Sure, there’s probably a number of more subtle ways to show Billy’s thoughts but the little box fading out back into reality is an interesting concept. (Also, this is a fantastic sequence in general).

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6) That ending. Buffalo ’66 seems to be on a constant, narrow trajectory towards disaster up to the final 4 to 5 minutes. And it’s only when that doesn’t occur that you realise what a relief it is. Billy Brown is certainly a difficult character to understand, let alone like. But it’s as if being on this journey with him for the day has helped the audience understand him a little better, and I like that.

It’s clear from the backstory of Buffalo ’66 that Billy has been through a lot and has pretty warped perceptions as a result. Is that used to excuse his criminal and downright immoral behaviour in kidnapping Layla? Maybe, but in some ways I don’t think so. With this in mind, I think that’s why Buffalo ’66 works so well. I could talk for hours about all the little parts in this film but I should probably leave it there.