[Deep Focus]
Local hero.

Give him credit for chutzpah. Vincent Gallo's directorial debut, Buffalo 66, is a semi-autobiographical yarn that overcomes blunt narcissism, striking an oddly convincing blow for optimism in the face of self-imposed misery.

Gallo plays Billy Brown, a wayward ex-con just out of prison. First on his agenda is a visit to his parents in Buffalo, New York. Billy has snowed them into thinking he's got a successful career with the government -- and a fiancee. En route to his odd homecoming, all Billy needs is a stand-in girlfriend. Ducking into one among many ugly buildings at the edge of town looking for a bathroom, he winds up kidnapping cherubic Layla (Christina Ricci) from dance class. Layla's makeup and demeanor suggest a positively unwholesome subtext, but Billy's staunchly asexual, acting less the gentleman than the eunuch. Her only attraction for him is as a tool to impress his parents, around whom his world now seems to revolve.

That world is severely dysfunctional. (Billy's mother, a nearly unrecognizable Anjelica Huston, still blames him for making her miss a key Buffalo Bills game when he was born back in 1966.) As played with alarming veracity by Huston and Gazzara, this is dry, disturbing material. For the first half of the film, which revolves around this wacko family reunion, Gallo finds his voice in a weird gray zone between farce and tragedy. These scenes are dry and horrific, and not-so-loosely autobiographical-- the family home in Buffalo is the house Gallo grew up in; when Billy's father (Ben Gazzara) sings to Layla, Gallo's father's voice is heard on the soundtrack.

Not content with making a merely ordinary film, Gallo pushes the envelope every whichway, eager to make this one stick. The effect is roughly akin to having your head between Gallo's bony hands, being told to look at this, look at this, and look at this. For instance, as Billy and Layla sit at a four-sided table with his parents, the camera moves from chair to chair, taking in the dialogue from the point of view of different spectator/participants in turn. Disorienting, sure, but also distracting -- and so insanely mannered that I just wanted to yelp. (For what it's worth, Gallo cites da Vinci's The Last Supper as an inspiration for this particular conceit.) Elsewhere, flashbacks are signalled when secondary frames appear inside the shot, with the memories projected inside like something from a Peter Greenaway film. Again, it feels less like a mode of communication than an unnecessary interruption, a stiff deviation from a nicely grim, low-key aesthetic.

Once these self-conscious cinematics gave way to some more elegant storytelling, I found myself warming considerably to Gallo's beautiful loser. And make no mistake about it, this gaunt figure is a beautiful, if mildly frightening, man. Check out the image that appears on the movie's poster, taken from the scene where Billy and Layla pose in a coin-operated photo booth for snapshots to send back home to the parents. Ricci is playful, shooting a coquette's sidelong look at the camera. Gallo, meanwhile, stares straight ahead, reveling, perhaps, in the near-ghoulishness of his gaze. His sure sense of himself highlights the skeletal magnetism of his face, those piercing eyes, that overgrown-boy demeanor.

Buffalo 66 has an organic consistency that indicates Gallo's knack for storytelling. Much as I disdained those early scenes, they're crucial to Billy's journey, establishing his mindset and credibly positioning his character on the very edge of the abyss. They're important not just for the information they give, but for the tone they set. (For once, here's an American independent film you can call "edgy" without sounding utterly fatuous.) What disappointed me early on, I think, was the bald artiness of Gallo's camera set-ups. I'm as much in favor of formal innovation as anybody, but Gallo's an overachiever whose rigor calls attention to itself.

So I prefer the understated stuff. I liked the quietly developed relationship between Billy and Layla, the former refusing the latter's affection and both of them needy as hell. I dug it when Jan Michael Vincent showed up to tell Billy that, in the kind of gesture that means everything in an ugly town, the stuff in his bowling locker has been kept just the way he left it five years ago. I keyed into Billy's absurd quest to put a bullet through the head of an over-the-hill ex-football player, and wondered whether he was confused enough (and dumb enough) to go through with that plan. And as cinematics go, it would be hard to beat the bravura climax, a high-decibel prog rock shocker that angles for the kind of sensory overload that can help make cathartic sense out of an unsettled life story.

Directed by Vincent Gallo
Story by Gallo; screenplay by Gallo and Alison Bagnall
Edited by Curtiss Clayton
Cinematography by Lance Acord
Starring Vincent Gallo and Christina Ricci
USA, 1998

Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1

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