The depressing, biting edge of Buffalo ’66 is a deliberate façade, masking the vulnerable, sweet and hopeful emotional heart of the film. As harsh and cold some of the bleaker moments of the film can be, there’s a perpetual sympathy for the core couple of the film, perhaps because of the harshness of the situation that surrounds them.
And it’s a complicated situation. When Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo) is released from prison after a five year term, he decides to visit his parents. However, due to a lie he fabricated while in jail, they believe he has a wife. Instead of talking his way out of bringing his nonexistent wife, he kidnaps Layla (Christina Ricci) and forces her to pretend to be his wife when he goes to visit his parents.
As dark and twisted as this sounds, the script by Vincent Gallo and Alison Bagnall manage to make the situation humorous, in large part because Billy is such a terrible kidnapper and proves so incompetent that it becomes clear after a while that Layla play along more out of fascination than fear. Also, Billy proves to be such a contradictory and bickering character that it’s humorous to watch him talk Layla into something only to freak out when she decides to play along.
But far than just being a buffoon, the film is honest about how disturbed Billy is as a character. While the film plays a scene where he confronts a man in the next urinal as a joke, there’s a biting edge of how disturbed Billy is because of how he overreacts and is so quickly prone to violence. For every raving that proves funny, there’s another that makes Billy an unlikable character to be around.
However, as the film transitions into the family dinner, the audience is treated to a brief glimpse into the childhood of Billy. Their perception of Billy as a character quickly shifts after seeing who his parents are and how Billy lived as a child. Billy is not some raving madman, but a man lost and broken, still torn asunder by the trauma of his childhood.
The morose dinner launches the film into a sweet, beautiful story as Billy attempts to search for some kind of worth and value as a person. He tries to find it through performance, through excelling at something he enjoys. He also entertains notions of seeking revenge, going back to deal with business that got him in prison in the first place.
As Billy works through these issues, the film finds the time to craft interludes and build memorable, cinematic moments. From Christina Ricci tap-dancing to Moonchild by King Crimson to the opening scene where Billy is bombarded by images of his past, director Vincent Gallo demonstrates rich, visual delights that weave pensive moments of reflection throughout the film.
Buffalo ’66 is a funny, sweet and frank character study of a compelling and complicated character. He’s not always likable, but the film still makes him a sympathetic character, one who is deeply human, both in his flaws and in his vulnerabilities. The film’s ability to work through the contradictions and tensions and create an emotionally satisfying experience makes it an unlikely and memorable masterpiece.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing