On the surface, "Buffalo '66", former Calvin Klein model Vincent Gallo's directorial debut, seems to be an absurd male abduction fantasy, a twisted take on the standard romantic comedy. However, as the quirky tale begins to take shape, it is readily apparent that "Buffalo '66" is a theme-driven exploration of catharsis, which is best summed up in the opening sequence of the film, which has the recently-paroled Billy Brown (Gallo) in search of a washroom. The guard at the prison gate won't allow Billy to re-enter the prison to use the can, so Billy must hold it for the entire bus ride back into town. Upon arriving in town, the comedy of errors continues with Billy being unable to find any working facilities, or even relieve himself in an alley. However, he finally does find a working washroom in a tap-dancing school, which is where he meets the dolled-up Layla (Christina Ricci of "The Ice Storm").
Requiring a 'wife' to impress his estranged parents, who are unaware of his incarceration, Billy kidnaps Layla and forces her to accompany him. Paradoxically, Layla becomes a willing victim in this charade to make Billy 'look good' in front of his dysfunctional parents, passing on the several opportunities for escape afforded by Billy's lapses in judgment. After charming the pants off her 'mother-in-law' (Anjelica Huston), who cares more about the Buffalo Bills than her own son, and her lecherous 'father-in-law' (Ben Gazzara), it is clear that Layla has fallen in love with Billy, and her shower of sweet compliments are nothing but sincere.
However, Billy is too wrapped up in his own insecurity to notice her affections. Furthermore, he is obsessed with killing the man he blames for his jail term-- a former football player turned strip club owner. Despite Layla's attempts to reach past the tough-guy mannerisms, Billy seems determined to exorcise the demons of his past, while forsaking the opportunities of the present-- a theme that also dominates the work of Hong Kong's Wong Kar-Wai ("Fallen Angels"). Along the way, Billy is confronted with relics of his past life, including his slow-witted friend Goon (Kevin Corrigan), the manager of his favorite bowling alley (Jan-Michael Vincent of "Airwolf" fame), and a girl he carried a torch for in school (Rosanna Arquette).
This nihilistic narrative exercise is artfully crafted, with the cinematography and production design solemnly conveying the bleakness of Billy's existence. Numerous whimsical sequences punctuate the film, such as Layla breaking into a tap dance number in the middle of a bowling alley, or the final confrontation between Billy and his past in a strip club. Though these indulgences by Gallo seem gimmicky, they do add a degree of introspective surrealism to the film, and are the most memorable scenes. Billy's character is well-conceived, both in terms of creating a likeable protagonist and as an embodiment of the film's central thesis. Gallo plays Billy convincingly, which isn't surprising since "Buffalo '66" is based on Gallo's youthful misadventures. However, Layla's character, despite a remarkable performance by Ricci, remains much of a mystery throughout the film. The audience is never privy to her past or her motivations, and as a result, never becomes more than a one-dimensional love interest.
In summary, "Buffalo '66" is a poignant film full of imagery and emotion that is not easily forgotten. Audiences will probably find much relevance in Billy's cathartic road trip, recognizing both his pain of isolation, and the defense mechanisms he uses to disguise his shame. Though the pedestrian pacing and the director's self-indulgence bring the film to a grinding halt on more than one occasion, it is more than made up for by the surprising and emotionally-satisfying payoff at the end.