Billy really needs the bathroom. Having just stepped off a bus — and out of prison earlier today — he sprints around town looking for somewhere to piss, eventually arriving at a dance studio; he attempts to use the facilities there, but ends up in a brawl when a gay guy propositions him at the urinal. Moments later, he grabs one of the dance students, forcing her downstairs into the parking lot. Billy wants the girl (Layla) to drive to his parents’ house and pose as his wife . . . and do it convincingly, or else.
Guy kidnaps girl. She falls for him; he falls for her. It’s an age-old setup, but there’s something different about Buffalo ’66, the directorial debut of model-turned-maverick filmmaker Vincent Gallo (also starring as Billy). Since wowing at Sundance in ’98, it’s been hailed as one of the finest examples of nineties America cinema. Gallo’s disreputable conduct over the last couple of decades may have soured the film’s reputation, but its delicate power remains unspoiled.
Once the basics of the kidnapping are out of the way, we’re flung into an idiosyncratic narrative where events transpire with seemingly little rhyme or reason. But there’s shrewd dexterity at work in Gallo’s writing: much like his fiercely independent forefathers (Altman, Cassavetes, Malik) he invites us to evaluate the subtext and fill in the blanks ourselves.
The biggest blank is Layla, played with just the right fusion of naïvety and sexual prowess by Ricci. With her glistening eyeshadow, Dorothy heels and heaving bosom, she’s a barely-legal Barbie doll in search of an identity. We get the sense that something’s missing in her life and that this, her abduction, is the adventure she’s been aching for. It would explain why she doesn’t put up much of a fight when Billy snatches her, and why she never seems particularly afraid of him despite his initial threats of violence. She’s eager to please, to the point of being submissive, and mostly does as she’s told. (It turns out this was echoed in real life, as Gallo later confessed to treating Ricci “like a puppet” on set.)
From Layla’s perspective, it isn’t hard to envision that it was love at first sight. For all his faults, Billy — floppy-haired and blue-eyed — has the kind of disheveled, punk-rock allure that sends women crazy. By the second act, it’s clear that she’s besotted. But as Billy’s contempt for her gives way to mild annoyance and, eventually, affection, it becomes apparent that he needs Layla far more than she needs him. He’s a man-child, a lost little boy. Belligerent, oversensitive, and destined for failure. In Layla, though, he may have found his salvation.
At the centre of everything is Billy’s encounter with his parents. (They have no idea he’s been in prison, so he lies about a lucrative job, fancy hotels, and marrying Layla; or “Wendy,” as he christens her.) Equal parts depressing and laugh-out-loud hilarious, it’s a wonderfully astute set-piece that’ll bring to mind the horror of ‘going home’ for anyone with a dysfunctional family. Billy’s ’rents are grotesque: his dad (Ben Gazzara) grunts and scowls his way through dinner, while his mom — played with astonishing verve by Anjelica Huston — is more interested in the football game on TV than anything her son has to say. They fawn over Layla but treat their only child with disdain and, worse still, indifference. (His mother elicits an iota of sympathy, her daffy behaviour likely owing to mental illness.) In the end, it’s painfully clear why Billy is the way he is: he spent his childhood feeling inadequate — and invisible — and now, as a grown-up, he’s desperate to prove himself . . . and for somebody, just once, to pay attention.
Shot by Lance Acord (Spike Jonze’s go-to) on 35mm reversal stock, the film’s visuals — washed-out at times, luminous at others — are a character of their own, evoking the warm-fuzzy feel of a vintage home movie or a well-thumbed Polaroid. Sprinkled with inventive little touches (for instance, a spotlight appearing on Ricci as she breaks into a solemn, spontaneous tap dance), Acord’s work imbues the film with a dreamy air of timelessness.
Ultimately, it’s the concluding moments that linger: first, Gallo and Ricci lying awkwardly in bed together . . . tentatively, back-to-back . . . then, at last, embracing one another, Ricci pulling Gallo into her bosom like a mother cradling an infant. It’s a tender, wordless moment that says more than dialogue ever could. Then, when Billy goes to buy a hot chocolate for Layla, the way he refers to her as his “girlfriend” — with a proud beam and the swagger of a teenager — is a soul-stirring sight to behold. For once he isn’t lying. He really means it. Billy’s in love, and it’s beautiful.