2016 Film Essays

Violently Tender: The Secret Humanism of Vincent Gallo’s ‘Buffalo ’66’

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When Billy (Vincent Gallo) first appears in Buffalo ’66, he’s no bigger than a bug. Emerging from a detention center, he walks with a crooked gait and one can almost hear the grimace on his face. He keeps looking back at prison, checking to see if it’s following him. Billy is always looking back — if not at prison, then at his adolescence, his mistakes, his vengeance against the world.

Directed and starring the acerbic Gallo, Buffalo ’66 seems like the sort of brooding, male self-portrait any humanist would hate. Like Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket or Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the plot follows an established formula wherein a male criminal’s suffering is healed by the love of a good woman. Many critics object to what they perceive to be the film’s misogynist romanticism, but Billy is not simply the “beast” to his good woman’s “beauty.” Though bleak and at times brutal, the film manages to evoke a world of sensitivity that’s, dare I say, rather feminine.

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It’s a testament to Gallo’s filmmaking that Billy has barely spoken a word and so much has already been conveyed about him. With his scraggly hair and hollow eyes, he’s the type of guy who’s got nothing going for him. Searching unsuccessfully for a restroom, Billy tries a bus station, a restaurant and a cafe. Nothing works. The whole scenario plays out like a cruel joke. After barging into a dance studio, he loses his temper on a man in the restroom. Shouting homophobic slurs, Billy, once sympathetic, turns into something different. He’s mean and aggressive… it’s a telling moment. He’s the Raskolnikov of the suburbs: a hot-tempered wretch, dense with grudges against every little thing.

A dancer named Layla (Christina Ricci) gives Billy a quarter to make a call and sticks around to hear it. “Ma?” Billy asks, softly and self-consciously. A shouting spat erupts. Here, one may become like Layla, listening to Billy as he condescendingly tells his mother he’s in town on business and staying at a fancy hotel with his wife. This leap in subjectivity is key. With her tiny tap shoes and big, blue eyes, Layla is as much of an outsider as Billy is. This is her story too.

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Layla returns to class and watches Billy through the door. Her flouncy dress, inspired by “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, confirms her deliberately fantastic innocence. Billy looks back and there’s a connection. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where he asks Layla to accompany him home and they fall in love. The moment is interrupted when Billy lunges toward her, wraps his arm around her neck and drags her into the parking lot. It’s a terrifying situation made permissible by the fact that Billy can’t drive stick. As soon as he gets into the driver’s seat of Layla’s car, the two have to switch places. Billy shouts and Layla obeys but there is knowledge in the woman’s eyes; a seed of consent. When Billy gets out of the car to urinate behind a tree, Gallo’s camera stays with Layla. Once again, the film is as concerned with her experience as it is with the male lead.

When they arrive at Billy’s childhood home, he crumbles on the steps. Behind his posture of aggression, there lies a well of sorrow. Layla comforts him yet Billy rejects her warmth, the severity a symptom of insecurity. Billy’s brusque father, Jimmy (Ben Gazzara), answers the door and turns away. “Your son’s here,” he says. The words cut Billy and any chance at reconciliation appears to be lost. This harsh man, like his son, also harbors a well of emotion. It comes to the surface later when Jimmy sings “Fools Rush In” for Layla. Illuminated by a spotlight, his performance is wistful and surreal. Again, Gallo proves that’s he’s as concerned with the emotional lives of these supporting characters as he is with Billy.

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The family dinner is a disaster. Billy’s mother (Angelica Huston) offers him chocolate donuts (“Ma, I’m allergic to chocolate”) and the film flashes back to the reason for Billy’s incarceration. He lost a bet on a Buffalo Bills game and now he’s determined to take revenge on the kicker who missed his goal. The plan is evil and selfish and that’s the point. He’s got nothing to lose.

The gloom of the family reunion is temporarily lifted when Billy and Layla visit a bowling alley. With eroticized sensitivity, Gallo depicts Billy’s one release in life: the satisfaction of landing a strike. Layla rises from the bench and a spotlight falls on her shoulders. She dances a tap number on the empty lanes. It’s a moment of simple and strange beauty, exhibiting the sort of feminine touch that makes Buffalo ’66 timeless.

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As Billy loads his gun and prepares to kill the retired Buffalo Bills kicker, something changes. He steps outside like an alcoholic stepping away from booze. He’s coming into his own, realizing the power he has over his life. He calls a friend and tells him he can’t have his bowling ball after all. “I gotta girl,” he says. It’s the best line in the movie. Billy goes into a cheap bakery to buy hot cocoa and a heart-shaped cookie. The old man behind the counter wears a plastic visor. Gallo isn’t making fun of the old man or his cookie. He sees the humanity. We do too.

Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.

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