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Follow Where 'Buffalo' Roam

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 1998


Buffalo 66 Vincent Gallo wrote, directed and stars in "Buffalo 66." (Lions Gate Films)

Vincent Gallo
Vincent Gallo;
Christina Ricci;
Anjelica Huston;
Ben Gazzara;
Mickey Rourke;
Kevin Corrigan;
Rosanna Arquette;
and Jan-Michael Vincent
Running Time:
1 hour, 50 minutes
Not rated

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The intimate, idiosyncratic and very funny "Buffalo '66"-directed by and starring Vincent Gallo, from a semi-autobiographical script co-authored with Alison Bagnall-feels like a projection of Gallo's very psyche. Personal and private almost to the point of self-absorption, the film is ultimately saved from neurotic narcissism by the director's self-deprecating humor and unapologetic honesty about his own dysfunction.

As the film opens, Billy Brown (Gallo) has just been released from an upstate New York prison after serving a five-year sentence. With his haunted, sunken eyes, unwashed hair and patchy beard, tight-fitting leather jacket, sprayed-on trousers and pointy red boots, Billy seems not just trapped in a fashion time warp but like an extraterrestrial marooned on an alien planet. His character is so unready for the real world, so unfit for society, that his first act as a free man is to request to be let back in to the penitentiary to use the bathroom.

His second act is to call his parents in Buffalo and arrange for a visit. One slight hitch: They are unaware that he has even been jailed, believing instead that he has been out of the country with his (fictional) wife Wendy performing top-secret government work. When mom (a deliciously unstable Anjelica Huston) refuses to accept that the bride is sick and insists on meeting her, Billy abducts a teenage tap student, Layla (Christina Ricci) and convinces her to portray his nonexistent spouse.

Preposterous, yes, but Gallo somehow makes this strangely seductive personality convincing with a charismatic performance that fluctuates between volcanic rage and abject, sincere apology. Ricci is perfectly cast as the fleshy and nurturing Layla, playing her as a kindred spirit to Billy's package of damaged emotional goods. They are both equally at sea in foreign waters.

Part of what makes Gallo's dreamlike vision succeed is its location of Buffalo, N.Y., the city where Gallo actually grew up. (Scenes of the Brown household were shot in Gallo's last residence there.) As anyone who has ever spent time in Buffalo will attest, it is a town uniquely out of sync with the rest of the country. Gallo beautifully captures that otherworldly quality with his mixture of modern and 30-year-old decor and a cast of characters who behave as if they were living in another era.

Layla is dressed in an ineffably anachronistic powder-blue baby-doll dress (designed by Gallo), with matching eye shadow. Mrs. Brown obsessively watches old tapes of Buffalo Bills games, and Mr. Brown (Ben Gazzara) lip-synchs to an old recording he made years ago with a big band.

If you've ever seen a single movie in your life, you know from the setup of "Buffalo '66" that the kidnapper and hostage will eventually start to drift in the direction of romance. Although Billy keeps shoving Layla away psychologically, she is like an empathetic burr, stuck tight to Billy's pain by her instinctive need to heal.

While this formula itself may be stale and desiccated, Gallo reconstitutes it with his stylistic bravura. It's almost as if the novice filmmaker, an acting veteran of 17 movies, set out to consciously avoid every visual cliche he has ever encountered.

Though the film is larded with such technical gimmicks as collage; freeze frame; long, uninterrupted takes; slow motion; off-center close-ups; surreal, spotlighted song and dance routines; unexpected dissolves; and blackouts, their use never comes across as an affectation but as an organic inflection of the storyteller's voice.

In "Buffalo '66," the off-kilter love story is in the end as sugary as a heart-shaped cookie, cut with the slightly acrid jolt of strong, black coffee. The fairy-tale belief in the transformative potential of a boyfriend or girlfriend may not be fresh, but Gallo makes it seem newly minted by dint of his own flawed and paradoxically lovable personality, both behind and in front of the camera.    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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