Spanning Time: Loneliness and Longing in ‘Buffalo ’66’

B

illy really needs the bathroom. Having just stepped off a bus (and out of prison earlier today) he sprints around town looking for a place 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 hold of one of the dance students and forces her downstairs into the parking lot. Billy wants the girl—Layla—to drive them to his parents’ house and pose as his wife . . . and do it convincingly, or else.

The setup may be as old as the hills—guy kidnaps girl, they butt heads; before you know it, they’ve fallen for each other—but there’s something quite different about Buffalo ’66, the directorial debut of model-turned-maverick filmmaker Vincent Gallo (also starring as Billy). Since wowing at Sundance in January of ’98, it has been hailed as one of the finest examples of nineties America cinema. Gallo’s disreputable conduct over the last couple of decades may’ve soured the picture’s reputation, but its keen, delicate power remains unspoiled.

Once the basics of the kidnapping are out of the way, we’re flung into an idiosyncratic narrative where events seem to unfold with little rhyme or reason—but worry not, for there is 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 for 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 from 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 is told. (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—blue-eyed and floppy-haired—has the kind of bedraggled, punk-rock allure that sends women crazy. By the second act, it is clear that she’s besotted. But as Billy’s contempt for her gives way to mild annoyance and, eventually, affection, it’s 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 could well 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 intolerable and laugh-out-loud hilarious, it’s a wonderfully discerning set-piece that’ll bring to mind the inescapable dread of returning to one’s roots for anyone with a dysfunctional family. His ’rents are grotesque: dad (Ben Gazzara) grunts and scowls his way through dinner, while 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 coo and fawn over their make-believe daughter-in-law, but choose to treat their only child with disdain and, worse still, indifference. (His mother elicits an iota of sympathy, her daffy behaviour most likely an upshot of 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, all 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 pic’s visuals—washed-out at times, luminous at others—are a distinguishable character all their own, evoking the fuzzy-warm nostalgia of a vintage home movie or a well-thumbed Polaroid. Sprinkled with inventive little touches (a solemn spotlight appearing on Ricci, for instance, as she breaks into an impromptu tap dance), Acord’s work imbues the film with a dreamy air of timelessness.

Ultimately, it is 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.

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