Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo, Palookaville) is out on the streets of Buffalo, New York after doing a nickel in the state pen. His parents don't know he was in jail, though; they think he's married, and has a top secret government job. When he decides to visit them, he abducts a young dance student named Layla (Christina Ricci, Sleepy Hollow) and makes her pretend to be his wife. Billy's home life is bizarre to say the least, his father (Ben Gazzara, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) cold and suspicious, his mother (Anjelica Huston, The Royal Tenenbaums) a passionate Buffalo Bills fan still resentful that Billy was born on the day the team won the AFL championship in 1966 (the year before the first Super Bowl), causing her to miss the game.
As the film unfolds, we learn Billy's incarceration was connected with a $10,000 bet he placed on the Bills to win the 1991 Super Bowl. They lost by a point on a missed field goal attempt, and Billy's determined the kicker, Scott Wood (the real kicker was Scott Norwood), missed the kick on purpose, landing Billy in trouble with his roughneck bookie (Mickey Rourke, Barfly). Billy's set his mind on a revenge killing, and tracks Wood to a seedy strip club he owns. But Layla's formed a genuine affection for him, despite his standoffishness. Shaken to the core by the idea that someone might be capable of loving him, Billy must decide whether to go through with the killing, or let go of his past and throw in his lot with Layla.
Okay, let's get something straight right off the bat: Buffalo '66 is a comedy. Sure, it's a black comedy littered with art film sensibilities we generally associate with pretentious crap, but it is a comedy. Viewers who fail to recognize that have a relentlessly bad time with the film. Taken seriously, it offers not a single likable character: everyone's behavior is as inexplicable as it is creepy. Vincent Gallo (who wrote, directed, and stars in the film) meant for us to laugh. Since the film's art house release five years ago, and subsequent turns on home video, the joke's been lost on about half the audience. The recent Cannes Film Festival debacle surrounding Gallo's second directorial effort, The Brown Bunny, hasn't helped Buffalo '66's reputation. Those who've seen Bunny, agree nearly unanimously it's pretentious, boorish, and dull, seemingly confirming some critics' worst assumptions about Gallo's debut. But hey, even if his second film sucked eggs (I can't say for certain since I haven't seen it yet), I still like his first.
At the time of Buffalo '66's release, much attention was paid to Christina Ricci's excellent performance because it was the beginning of her transition from child to adult roles. In retrospect, her work still impresses but it's easier now to see the quality of the performances around her, too. Gallo's perfectly muddled, creepy, menacing, and pathetic as Billy. Love's transformative, redemptive power is the film's central theme, and Gallo is required to play some surprisingly emotional moments that contrast an otherwise caustic and sometimes mean performance. He pulls this balance off with such ease, it's easy to overlook the quality of the performance (inexplicably, Gallo's often accused of self-indulgence because of Layla's love for Billy despite his despicable behavior, but Billy's so often the butt of the film's jokes, it's hard to make the case Gallo's idealizing him, or that Billy's a semi-fictional version of Gallo himself). Gazzara and Huston are simultaneously funny and upsetting as Billy's parents, most of the quality of their performances rooted in their attention to detail as opposed to punchlines in the script (just watch the different degrees to which Huston's attention is divided between dinner conversation and the Bills game on the television, or the way Gazzara presses his lecherous eyeing and pawing at Ricci beneath a surface of father-in-law affection). And the film boasts entertaining cameos by Mickey Rourke, Rosanna Arquette, and Jan-Michael Vincent. Still, Ricci is impressive. Given the difficult task of playing a girl who, in a single night, falls in love with her abductor, a verbally-abusive neurotic, she makes it believable (within the upside-down world of the film). Layla's not a healthy girl, but in Ricci's hands we somehow come to like her…or at least sympathize with her.
The excellent performances throughout the film save a loose and meandering script. Billy's plan to kill the Bills' kicker isn't revealed until 30 or 40 minutes in, giving the first act an arty, character-driven feel with little indication of plot. Nevertheless, one is carried along by individual moments of bizarre hilarity and actors fully committed to their grotesque characters. In addition, Buffalo itself is a character, its tract houses, Dennys, cheap motels, and dilapidated storefronts a feast for the eyes. Gallo's weaknesses in plotting are easily masked by his grasp of dark humor, penchant for subtext-laced dialogue, strong casting, and street-level knowledge of his home town.
This Lions Gate disc is the second release of Buffalo '66 on DVD, the first a now out-of-print disc from Universal. The earlier disc's production notes (absent in this release) explain that Gallo shot the movie on reversal film, a Super 8 stock that displays far less grain in the 35 mm format, but maintains the more stylized colors of the lower grade stock. As such, the DVD transfer has certain limitations. Lions Gate's disc presents the film at 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced—but so did the Universal platter. There's little difference between the two. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround audio is also unchanged from the previous release (the film is dialogue-driven and the track does its job just fine).
If you already own the Universal disc, there's no reason to replace it. This disc offers no improvement in the video or audio departments (I'm not sure an improvement is possible based on the source) and, although the Universal disc had very few extras (trailer, production notes, cast bios), this new edition has even fewer. If you're a fan of the film and don't own the Universal disc, this Lions Gate release is solid and you should be happy with it. If you've never seen the film and have a taste for esoteric dark comedies, give this one a spin.
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• Trailers: Buffalo 66, The Big Kahuna, Confidence
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