Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo) has just been released from prison, where he has spent the last five years. He wanders out into the snow, but asks to be let back in to use the bathroom; his request is refused, so he gets on the bus into town and begins a search for somewhere to relieve himself. He tries in the station but the bathroom is closed, so he ends up going into a hall where a dance class is being held and goes to use the bathroom there - unfortunately there is someone already using it who voices his awe at the size of Billy's manhood, forcing Billy into a rage which means he can't urinate. Distracted, he goes to make a 'phone call home to his parents, who don't know he's been in prison all this time...
Written by the director and star Vincent Gallo with Alison Bagnall, Buffalo '66 (the title refers to the city the film takes place in and the year Billy was born) was an unusual romance set in depressing surroundings which has at its heart an unlikely pairing. We can see that everything in Billy's world drives him to distraction, but what's not clear is how funny it's supposed to be, because we don't know if we're supposed to be laughing at the main character or feeling pity for him - or perhaps both. And funny it is, down to Gallo's aggravated performance and the largely uncaring people around him, especially his parents, played by Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston.
Before Billy can go to see them, he has to secure a wife first, or at least someone to pose as his wife. It just so happens that the dance student he has borrowed a quarter from, a girl called Layla (Christina Ricci apparently wearing her nightdress coupled with spangly tap shoes), is walking by and he grabs her, puts his hand over her mouth and drags her out into the parking lot. There they get into Layla's car and Billy outlines his plans in a threatening manner and of course, never having a lucky day, he finds he can't drive her car (he's used to "luxury cars", he says). It's never obvious why Billy would want to see his parents again, never mind why he thinks marriage is such a thing to aspire too considering his past experiences, as we learn.
So Layla has the privilege of being the getaway driver at her own kidnapping, but for some reason which remains unclear she goes along with Billy's idea that she pretend to be his wife, under the name of Wendy, and live up to his ideal of a loving spouse for show. When she meets the parents, the mother is football obsessed and couldn't care less about her son, even offering him chocolate doughnuts after forgetting he's allergic to chocolate. The father is aggressively cold and equally as unloving towards his son as his wife is, but lecherously pleased to see Layla. So is staged the family meal from hell, with Billy provoked into a hilarious state of fury, not only by his parents, but by Layla's creativity with their supposed background (although Ricci's funniest moment comes when she poses for photographs later).
Buffalo '66 has the look of polaroids come to life, with a distinctive washed out quality, and this enhances the bleak atmosphere of the story. Billy is a man with a mission, you see, and has made up his mind to shoot the fellow he feels is responsible for his incarceration which stems from a foolish bet he made and lost him too much money. The film is peppered with cult faces: Mickey Rourke appears briefly to explain the plot, Rosanna Arquette is the real Wendy, the girl Billy loved in school who he bumps into at a diner, and Jan-Michael Vincent runs the bowling alley Billy finds a short period of happiness in. There are also infrequent musical interludes as Gazzara mimes to a record and Ricci tap dances in the bowling alley (you can see why she needs the lessons). The outcome of all this is that Layla, as difficult to believe as it is, falls for Billy - but will she redeem him? The film is an eccentric work which feels sorry for itself in a way that absurdly makes it more enjoyable and Gallo's prickly screen personality verges on turning into a minor indie icon.
Always worth watching, a difficult man, and a man of many talents, American performer Vincent Gallo first gained renown as an actor, moving from small roles in Goodfellas and Arizona Dream to prominent parts in Palookaville, The Funeral, Confessions of a Trickbaby and Trouble Every Day. But it's as a writer/director he has found notoriety, first with the spiky drama Buffalo '66 and then in the moody The Brown Bunny which saw him indulging in an actual sex act with co-star Chloe Sevigny.