Director-writer-composer-star-visionary Vincent Gallo, a left-field character actor whose best work has been in the films of mainstream eccentrics like Emir Kusturica (Arizona Dream), Abel Ferrara (The Funeral), and Alan Taylor (the low-key Palookaville), arrives as full-blown auteur with Buffalo '66, a million-dollar art project currently on the cover of both Filmmaker magazine and Artforum.
Based on an amusing premise, it stars Gallo as Billy Brown, an affable loser who bets the farm on the Buffalo Bills, a national joke and his mother's favorite team, only to see them lose the '91 Super Bowl to the Giants in the final seconds when place-kicker Scotty Woods misses a routine field goal. Billy puts in five years in prison upstate to repay the 10 grand he owes his bookie, and becomes convinced Woods threw the game; upon his release, he vows to track the place-kicker down at the Buffalo strip club he owns. He'll make him pay.
But first, Billy kidnaps a young ballet student (Christina Ricci) to serve as "Wendy," his imaginary wife, for one last supper at his parents' home, a den of dysfunction so garish and unresolved, it threatens to unhinge anyone who strays there. He never imagines for a second that she might like it.
Ricci is once again a vision, continuing her gallery of damaged loners begun with The Ice Storm, The Opposite of Sex, and her waif-thin Streisand stalker in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. She was one of those child actors so perfect in The Addams Family that it was heartbreaking to see her struggle through kids' fodder like Casper and That Darn Cat. Her reinvention in mere months as diaphanous sex bomb--with newfound Kewpie-doll features and a necrophiliac allure--is cause for national celebration.
The rest of the supporting cast is equally good to see, if not altogether effective. Anjelica Huston as Billy's mom, a football-obsessed fan incapable of human interaction (a character played much more ably by Frances McDormand in John Sayles' Lone Star) seems out of her element in getting a handle on either the upstate squawk or the emotional demands of the character. Ben Gazzara, veteran of five Cassavetes showcases and no stranger to improvisation, seems visibly frustrated in his dinner-table scenes with the arty framing and lack of interplay. Even the cameos--Rosanna Arquette as the real Wendy, Mickey Rourke as an unctuous bookie, a pasty Jan-Michael Vincent at a bowling alley--are all choice, even if between Rourke's plastic surgery and Vincent's revolving-door rehab, they look like medical experiments who wandered in from The Island of Dr. Morose.
And Gallo himself, smoldering in his insecurity, with the scraggly, stoop-shouldered, thrust-jawed look of a young Bruce Springsteen, is certainly an overwhelming presence. But as with other character actors gone to genius--Billy Bob Thornton easily slides to mind--the extreme self-consciousness of the style, mixed with the almost religious masochism of the character, seems on closer inspection like so much gimmickry, the visual equivalent of facial tics and grimaces, augmented by the occasional limp or eyepatch.
If it's a Hollywood truism that directing that draws attention to itself always comes at the expense of the narrative, then the direction here virtually lapels you into compliance, grabbing you by the jacket-front and head-butting you into submission. Shot on 35mm reversal stock for its extreme saturation of color--a process for which there was no existing film-development procedure, or even lab equipment before Kodak stepped in after the completion of principal photography--the film is a thick, wildly mannered, almost synesthetic swirl of jumpcuts, actors' moments, extreme editing and framing, blood-and-chocolate cinematography (courtesy music-video whiz Lance Acord), and at least one 3-D freeze-frame device (employed at the apex of an exit wound) that is breathtaking. Call it Ill Mannerism: It bashes you over the head with its aesthetic subtlety.
Much is also being made of the elliptical European pacing, with the director probably being given the benefit of the doubt because of his singular pedigree. (He has also made three films with French maverick Claire Denis, as well as upcoming films with Brit Roland Joffe and Scandinavian madman Aki Kaurismaki.) Yet even this looks European by way of Mean Streets--a growth industry these days--or more correctly, Mean Streets crossed with Taxi Driver. Billy phones his parents with tales of secret government assignments, is propelled by some misguided assassination attempt that is only revealed at the midpoint, after you're already invested in his brittle pathology, and arrives headlong at some gruesome tableau of spectral and otherworldly carnage. It's like the honeymoon weekend Travis Bickle might have spent with Iris if she'd walked back downstairs with him before the paramedics arrived.
There's more to artistic achievement than a singularity of vision, although the two are often seen as synonymous in these troubled times. With a studio system manned by a mid-level development bureaucracy whose sole function is to quell eccentricity--to ferret it out and detonate it, like children sweeping through a minefield--then anything odd or misshapen that makes it onscreen is more often than not celebrated as an achievement. Great filmmaking is neither a popularity contest nor any stranger to autocracy, as the careers of anyone from John Ford to Sam Peckinpah to Billy Wilder to Terry Gilliam might attest. But neither is it the last refuge of unbridled narcissism. That may be what it takes. But even so, I doubt that's all it takes--and the stylish but incomplete Buffalo '66 is proof.
Directed by Vincent Gallo. Written by Gallo and Alison Bagnall. Starring Gallo, Christina Ricci, Anjelica Huston, and Ben Gazzara. Opens Friday.
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