REVIEW: Buffalo ’66 [1998]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 110 minutes | Release Date: June 26th, 1998 (USA)
Studio: Lions Gate Films
Director(s): Vincent Gallo
Writer(s): Vincent Gallo & Alison Bagnall / Vincent Gallo (story)

“Just look like we are a married couple … spanning time”

In 2004 Christina Ricci was quoted in Time Out magazine as saying, “Buffalo ’66 was the most beautiful example of self-absorption I’ve ever seen in my life.” She’s not wrong. Even if she had a good experience on set and didn’t loathe writer/director/star Vincent Gallo like most involved on the film, she’d still not be wrong. Gallo’s character Billy Brown is the epitome of self-centered aggression mixed with an absolute lack of self-esteem—a description that describes Buffalo, NY in the late 90s/early 00s too. It was a time where the city hoped for more than reality provided while trapped in a cycle of self-destruction and shortsightedness. Upon leaving prison, Billy feels the same. He subconsciously yearns for nostalgic memory, but his purpose returning home is ultimately to make good on a misguided, angry promise uttered five-years prior.

You hate to think a sports team could mean so much to a city, but the humorous depiction of Mrs. Brown (Anjelica Huston) caught in a never-ending vacuum of ignorant bliss when it comes to the Buffalo Bills losing Super Bowl XXV isn’t far off the mark. Western New York was caught sleepwalking afterwards, gut-punched and open-mouthed at an unfair atrocity wrought by unjust Gods. Citizens wore the loss (and subsequently three more) like a badge of dishonor, embracing the stereotypical thought of not being good enough. A once proud people within a booming city were now relegating their pride to sticking it out despite a crumbling infrastructure threatening to swallow them whole. It’s no surprise many Buffalonians dislike the film’s gritty look at their home’s fading glory. Those of us who love it, however, understand its purpose.

By 1998, Gallo was already two decades removed from his hometown: a respected noise musician and avant garde performance artist in NYC who rolled with the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat. (If you’ve seen Julian Schnabel‘s biopic Basquiat and wondered what Gallo was doing in the background, Benicio Del Toro‘s character is partly based on Vincent’s real-life friendship with the late painter.) I say this to explain how there wasn’t a reason to make his debut feature here besides the same unavoidable magnetism Buffalo possesses for those who’ve been inside its clutches. So many who move away eventually come back and more who had arrived for a short time find themselves permanent fixtures decades later. The city is a black hole of sorts, calling you back with memories of why you left and also the promise of rebirth.

Buffalo ’66 is a living, breathing visualization of this feeling like only a native son could understand. It is the vulgar cesspool of wasted potential, stubborn denial, and diamond in the rough possibility wherein a young man so bitter about the mistakes he’s made returns to murder the man he holds responsible. Scott Woods (Bob Wahl)—a stand-in for infamous Bill Scott Norwood—was responsible for a lot of pain and suffering thanks to “Wide Right”. His miss put Billy in jail, stealing away defeat from the clutches of victory as Brown once did back in 1966 when his entrance into this world prevented his mother from seeing an AFL Championship. Will killing Woods and inevitably himself solve anything? Did Buffalo watching countless storefronts downtown shutter while balking at support to keep commerce alive? Reason is often ignored.

The film becomes a dark, twisted fairy tale where Billy hopes to fake his way through a family reunion by pretending to be successful and married despite possessing a genuine fear of intimacy. He kidnaps a teenager to play his spouse (Ricci’s Layla), continuously spouts lies that are nevertheless exposed via cruel fate, and allows the agony of self-hatred to drown him in an abrasive demeanor he knows is wrong. All bark and no bite, this sweet kid who still takes the time to smooth out his parents’ bedspread after ruffling it while on the phone is quick to snap death threats and quicker to burrow inside himself with pained guilt in response. Anything good that happens is impossible and everything bad deserved. He is a man getting his affairs in order before execution.

Like the newfound resurgence of a contemporary Buffalo in 2015, however, there’s a glimmer of hope in Layla’s ability to see Billy for who he really is: a lost little boy who simply wants to be loved. He must face the decision of repeating his pattern of awkward introversion bordering on sociopathy or accepting the difficult road towards emotional fulfillment. Billy is a damaged soul who has seen violence, anger, and disinterest rather than the compassionate embrace of a proud parent who would never forget he/she had a child. The glory days are long gone but not quite dead and buried. And new meaning lays ripe for the picking if old ways of thinking can be ignored and the harsh embarrassment of a life unlived dissolved by a kind heart’s refusal to judge. It’s a redemption story wrapped in tragedy.

It’s a gorgeous one with some spectacular cinematography courtesy of Lance Acord—although Gallo enjoys taking credit for everything his crew accomplished—that makes it a stunning debut and a pillar of independent cinema alongside its peers. There are some weird transitions like flashbacks pushing out as squares from the center of the frame as well as stylistic wonders such as 360-degree freeze frames of bloody carnage. A rapid-cut montage at Recckio’s Bowling Center of shallow focus close-ups and sexual innuendo will prove hard to shake as the slo-mo climax set to Yes‘ “Heart of the Sunrise” burns your retinas and ears with confident bravado. Add the hilarious supporting cast of Huston, Ben Gazzara, Kevin Corrigan, and Rosanna Arquette with a local legend like Manny Fried manning the donut counter and the experience is hard to forget.

At the end of the day, though, beyond any allusions to Buffalo’s state at the time of production or the view the rest of the country placed upon it, Buffalo ’66 is at its core a love letter to home. It’s dysfunctional, unhealthy, and oftentimes deplorable, but Billy Brown finds a reason to stay even if by sheer accident and dumb luck. His relationship with Ricci’s Layla is messed up and abusive, yet there’s also a heartwarmingly gooey center beneath the callousness on its surface. They are both broken, crossing paths at the perfect moment for personal salvation. They probably won’t live happily ever after—and who knows if the film’s promise of one actually occurs when so many scenes of the fantastical come and go like the graphic outburst before it—but the opportunity is enough.

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