In Which We’re a Couple Spanning Time Together
American Thanksgiving is perhaps the toughest holiday to square for a whole swath of people. Founded upon whitewashed history; it’s a celebration of puritanical values in family and culture that has grown more dissonant as time marches on. And that dissonance can be only heightened during the centerpiece of the celebration, the dinner with family. Everyone’s family is different, but for many the annual gathering is a contentious battle of wills, a moment when all the past comes to bear on a singular heavy moment.
Vincent Gallo’s 1998 indie drama Buffalo ’66 isn’t a Thanksgiving movie, but boy does it feel like one. With it’s chilly New England landscapes, hectoring family get togethers, and grounding in football, it fits the bill perfectly. All of the tempestuous and prickly emotions are channeled through Billy (Gallo), a recently released inmate who’s looking to meet with his parents one last time before meeting out vengeance on the football player he believes is responsible for sending him to the clink. Along the way Billy kidnaps Layla (Christina Ricci) and forces her to pretend to be his wife for his family. And over the course of an unsettled dinner and night after, the two become close.
Gallo here is taking a classic 90’s indie kid route with his movie, calling forth both the overt stylized look of the French New Wave, and mixing it in with the grimy sad-sack actor first dramas of the 70’s. It’s a film meant to dazzle and irritate in equal measure, as Gallo’s use of color, framing, and camera work violently clash with the aggrieved patter and boiling resentments presented on screen.
It also falls into the classic indie kid trap of being a movie about a disaffected loser who is redeemed by a relationship with a woman he mostly berates and abuses while she plays along. And it’s through sheer force of will from both Gallo the director and Ricci the performer that the film doesn’t fall down and completely wallow in the pain and barbs. Billy is acerbic costumer, a man ready to push the blame on anybody else, and the opening act of the film is dread inducing with his actions towards Layla. He physically hurts her, takes away her agency, and forces her to enter a dangerous and deceitful situation.
But once the table is set for the family reunion Gallo’s intention and choices cohere and clarify. While at the table every shot is framed from the POV of one side of the square. Each image is then a perfect proscenium of three out of four people. We can see how Billy and his parents react and bounce off each, how the slinging of the insults and austere framing reveal the depths of the parents’ abuse (here highlighted by sudden zooming in scenes from the past), and why Layla may gain sympathy for Billy’s life. He’s as much a product of anger and resentment as anybody, and sloughing those emotions off can be nothing but a benefit to him.
Ricci’s performance and appearance does a lot to sell this shift. Her eyes are huge and empathetic, searching for meaning and trying to make sense of the absurd situation she’s in. She constantly pushes at the edges of her predicament, willing to prod into Billy’s psyche to find answers so that this man can actually move forward instead of receding into the pit of self-despair that he finds himself in. It does fall a bit into the classic “lover/mother” role for Ricci, but her presence saves the material from drowning in its self.
Gallo’s direction is another saving grace. The previously mentioned dinner scene is the first major standout, but there’s wit and imagination everywhere. When Layla does a fourth wall breaking tap dance at a bowling alley the camera elegantly glides to create the perfect stage for her performance. The finale, where Billy imagines killing his most hated former football player is deliriously orchestrated. With abstract compositions, bold color choices, and thrumming soundtrack (provided by prog-rock legends Yes). It’s incredibly gripping and thrilling, even if it’s a bit of a showoff piece. It does, however, ground Billy’s sudden final turn, apologizing to his only friend and buying food for Layla.
These turns might go down differently for each viewer. Billy’s reversal of opinion and Layla’s too generous effort to reform him might be steps beyond the realm of acceptability. But they can also be garnishes for a large meal, the twist that allows one to revel in what’s presented before them, to see the possibility for the explosive family get together to not be the end of the road, but possible a pathway to somewhere new.
Odds and Ends
- The use of classic prog rock is just such a fun unique touch (Layla tap dances to Moonchild by King Crimson), it’s a twist of the usual 90’s nostalgia score.
- Now, the eternal question is will I sometime down the road write about Gallo’s mega-mocked sophomore feature The Brown Bunny, who can say.
I’m scheduling out my movies for the holiday season, so think of you best, most malaised, Christmas or Christmas adjacent films for the next month. Yes Go is already promised a spot.