Both an impressive first film and an irritating one, Vincent Gallo's "Buffalo 66" exudes honest emotional expression and overweening ego in equal and continuous measure.

Both an impressive first film and an irritating one, Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo 66″ exudes honest emotional expression and overweening ego in equal and continuous measure. Alive to cinematic ideas, generous to its actors and peppered with unexpected humor, this ultimately sweet-natured low-budgeter is nonetheless riddled with enough off-putting and digressive material to create significant obstacles to critical and commercial acceptance. On the plus side, Christina Ricci puts in a standout co-starring turn. Good fest and potential specialized life loom.

An indie actor (“The Funeral,” “Palookaville”) and former artist and rock musician who directed, co-wrote, composed the music and stars here, Gallo is obviously a creative force to be reckoned with, and just as clearly has plenty of smarts. Unfortunately, he dumbs down to an almost ludicrous extreme in the role of Billy Brown, a convict who, upon his release from five years in prison, hatches a preposterous scheme to try to impress his thick parents and then to throw his life away in taking revenge on the man he feels ruined his life.

Released from the pen on a cold winter day, the grungy, disoriented Billy heads into downtown Buffalo needing more than anything to find a place to take a leak. But before he can succeed in that, he brutally kidnaps a teenage tap-dancing student, Layla (Ricci), whose bleach-blond hair, heavy mascara and flimsy negligee-like dress make her look like a kewpie-doll bimbo.

The impulsive, desperate-seeming Billy’s directives are clear: They are going to visit his parents, and Layla must come along, pretend to be his loving wife and sing his praises to the folks. The far-fetched story is that they met while working for the CIA, and have been incommunicado all these years while on overseas assignment.

The long centerpiece of the picture, the parental encounter is loaded with absurd humor as well as awkward feelings and technique. Dad (Ben Gazzara) is a gruff type whose uncommunicativeness masks unfathomable hostility toward his son. Mom (an all-but-unrecognizable Anjelica Huston) is an insatiable Buffalo Bills fan who remains riveted to a tape of an old game throughout her son’s homecoming.

Not only is he named for the local football team, but Billy turns out to have his own unfortunate connection to its hard-luck past: It was his bet of $10,000 he didn’t have on a Bills Super Bowl game that landed him in hot water with a bookie (Mickey Rourke in an effective cameo) and ultimately in the joint. Feeling he has nothing else to live for, Billy plots to track down the kicker, Scott Woods, who missed (purposely, he believes) the decisive field goal and gun him down.

In the meantime, Layla plays her part with unexpected enthusiasm and startling success. Ignoring their son, Mom and Dad are enchanted with the young lady (Dad takes every opportunity to express his rush of affection physically), and Layla, about whom the audience has thus far learned nothing, seems to be finding a delightful outlet in this coerced fantasy. She takes things too far for Billy’s taste when she announces that they’re going to have a baby, whereupon they split, first to a bowling alley where Billy used to be a regular, then to a Denny’s, where they run into a trampy woman (Rosanna Arquette) who may or may not have been Billy’s girlfriend back in school.

Even up to this point, it isn’t evident where Gallo is headed with his strange little odyssey of compulsive behavior, role playing and retrieval of things past. Gradually however, as the couple check awkwardly into a motel room and Billy prepares to follow through on his plan to kill Scott Woods, it becomes clear that Billy is approaching a moment at which he will have the opportunity to change his life dramatically, to choose between potential love and annihilation, to take a step toward maturity or to remain the victim of his pathetic past. Which way he’ll go isn’t revealed until the unexpected final shot.

All the emotions in the film, beginning with the unshakable resentment Billy feels toward his parents and the utterly disconnected stance the latter take toward their son, ring true. Billy’s uncouth, aggressive behavior, so disagreeable at first, eventually can be seen for what it is, a reaction to his extreme insecurity and lack of received affection. Even though they are sometimes treated humorously, however, the goofy plot mechanics and extreme positions of the characters undercut this credibility time and again, making for a conflicted viewing experience.

Adding to this ambivalence will be reaction to Gallo himself. Playing a character one would go out of the way to avoid if encountered in real life, thesp seems to revel in Billy’s appalling grubbiness; you can practically smell him from your seat. Unpredictable in his antisocial antics — he can be gentle with Layla one moment and threaten her life the next — Gallo has warm, clear eyes that ultimately win one over, but he seems to delight in constructing lots of initial barriers to put off the viewer.

Cinematically, Gallo tries lots of things, from the Godardian opening credits and frequent jump-cutting to shooting with reversal stock, which bleaches the images of their normal colors and grain. Most of his little experiments work, although the very odd coverage of a bloody shootout in a strip joint makes it resemble an artwork installation more than even a stylized movie sequence.

Pic receives an incalculable boost from Ricci. Even though her role remains a cipher for the longest time, as underwritten as Billy is overwritten, this fast-developing actress is fascinating to watch at every moment, and at the 11th hour is provided with just enough motivation to make Layla work as a character.

Led by Huston and Gazzara, all-name supporting cast is lively and colorful, and Gallo’s varied score stands as a further indication of his range of talents.

Buffalo 66

Production

A Lions Gate Films/Cinepix Film Properties presentation of a Muse production. Produced by Chris Hanley. Executive producers, Michael Paseornek, Jeff Sackman. Directed by Vincent Gallo. Screenplay, Gallo, Alison Bagnall, original story by Gallo.

Crew

Camera (color), Lance Acord; editor, Curtiss Clayton; music, Gallo; production design, Gideon Ponte; sound (Dolby), Brian Miksis; assistant director, Michelangelo Bolla. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 21, 1998. Running time: 112 min.

With

Billy Brown - Vincent Gallo Layla - Christina Ricci Janet Brown - Anjelica Huston Jimmy Brown - Ben Gazzara Goon - Kevin Corrigan Bookie - Mickey Rourke Wendy - Rosanna Arquette Sonny - Jan-Michael Vincent

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