There’s no doubting that a large part of Vincent Gallo’s infamy boils down to his public appearances as something of an outcast art rebel. Gallo has built up a reputation as arrogant, mean and often outright odd, and considering that his first acting appearance was in a film titled ‘Vincent Gallo as Flying Christ’, a micro-film that sees… Vincent Gallo quite literally become the titular flying Christ, this doesn’t really come as a surprise.
However, Gallo’s performances showed another side entirely. Rather than the side that can be seen on his personal website, in his performances it becomes clear that Gallo is entirely dedicated to the arts. His first love was in painting, but at a certain point he transitioned to acting and later to directing. After learning about direction from many of the all time greats (often giving great performances in their work) including Coppola, Scorsese, Claire Denis and Abel Ferrara just to name a few – Gallo would go on to make his first (of two) feature length film(s), Buffalo ’66. (This doesn’t count Promises Written In Water, as it was unfortunately only screened once at Cannes in 2010 and remains unreleased.)
Buffalo ’66 works best when looked at in contrast to Gallo’s second feature, The Brown Bunny (which I wrote a separate review for, see here – https://www.cinematary.com/writing/2020/7/19/the-brown-bunny-2003-by-vincent-gallo), however, when standing alone, it’s also one of the best independent American films ever made. The film is about Billy Brown (Gallo), recently released from prison, kidnapping Layla (Christina Ricci) and forcing her to pretend to be his girlfriend to impress his parents (whom he is clearly very insecure towards). Gallo employs such a wide range of different stylistic traits to communicate the feelings of his character, who we meet as he is released from prison for a crime he claims he didn’t commit. The film holds familiar parts of both the French New Wave (jump cuts that obscure the scene and disorientate the audience during hectic moments, a unique patchwork-type edit that sees the screen become a puzzle of different frames giving visual exposition and the astonishing moment towards the end of the film that freezes time) and Hollywood’s New Wave (in the focus on a flawed male hero, the traditional indie look of a distinctly suburban and grainy America, etc), bringing together Gallo’s wide-ranging knowledge of cinema (as well as his numerous influences from other art forms) to create a distinct voice of his own (especially when taking into consideration that this is a debut feature, his style stands out and shows a great deal of confidence).
This aforementioned feeling portrayed is, more often than not, a uniquely crippling level of insecurity that seems to rattle through every single bone in Billy’s body at all times, and it’s also a feeling that is so strong that it fuels the majority of his actions, from kidnapping Layla in the first place to impress his parents to the smaller nuances like bathing in his vest out of insecurity regarding his body. Billy skips going to the bathroom because he feels that another character is watching him do it, he opts for a handshake instead of a hug, he bursts out in anger and frustration frequently when he feels inadequate, and Buffalo ’66 focuses itself on trying to learn why somebody could or would turn out like this, starting with family. The majority of the second act of the film takes place at Billy’s childhood home with his parents (played by Anjelica Houston and Cassavetes’ favourite Ben Gazzara), using somewhat comical flashbacks between scenes of pure awkwardness and discomfort to lay the foundations for Brown’s character and to explain his present struggles with confidence and self worth. (This is where the spoilers begin, for those who haven’t seen the film!)
It soon becomes clear that Gallo isn’t so much focused on the story as the context surrounding it that the audience are only occasionally drip-fed small parts of, at least for the first half of the film whilst he introduces the audience to this context. Whether it be the flashback when we see Gazzara’s character abusing Billy’s childhood dog (made more poignant as it comes directly after Gazzara’s character says that he can’t recall what happened to the dog) or the scene when Christina Ricci explains how she and Billy were supposed to have met to impress his parents and they completely ignore every word she says, preferring the entertainment of the football game on TV or simply staring into space, it’s evident that Gallo’s more intrigued by the reasons why Billy Brown ended up in prison and shrouded by insecurities, and this is developed in the second half as more flashbacks reveal money troubles, mistakes and Billy’s thirst for revenge on those who played a part in his path to prison life.
To take the focus away from Gallo’s character and look at Ricci’s for a moment, the two create a compelling contrast with one another. Ricci’s Layla is shown to clearly contrast Billy in Gallo’s formal choices which label her a fantasist during two specific scenes; one in which Ben Gazzara sings along to a tape of his but it comes out as a perfectly recited version of Frank Sinatra and another when Layla tap dances whilst bowling with Billy after leaving his parents’ house. During both of these scenes, a spotlight shines on the character, they stand mid-frame, the background evaporates, taking the surrounding world with it… and just for a moment, all there is is a single character performing. These moments come in brief bursts, Layla’s attitude towards her kidnapper also suggest that she is enough of a fantasist to see through his anger and his kidnapping to see him as the deeply vulnerable character that he is, something that not even the audience can pick up on immediately – we learn it just as she does. Layla’s world of fantasy works as a brilliant counter to the fragmented world Billy occupies, which is one of a much more sombre isolation than her more performative one.
Buffalo ’66 makes sure to see both sides of Billy Brown – the furious, hectic and rambling criminal who acts out of desperation and the much more insecure, vulnerable man who never quite managed to make his life work as he intended – and decides to give him the choice between the two. He could follow his initial plans and kill the man responsible for his prison time and then himself, or he can try to make things work once more – a choice between the long term good of optimism or the short term freedom of revenge – and the fact that Billy ultimately chooses to try once more with life may be what makes the film as affecting as it is. Billy’s choice becomes the focal point of the film as a whole, illuminated when the film even makes a point of showing what would happen if he did follow through with his initial plans, and it is the fact that he is willing to make the harder choice and to take the bigger risk in the name of hope that drives home Gallo’s focus on trauma, abuse and how it can often come from outside influences rather than from inside – maybe people can heal…