This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

What Does This Movie Mean? Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo ‘66” (1998)

This is another blurb on movie interpretation. Today: a love story. As with the others, this is not a review, per se, and major spoilers follow.

Synopsis: The protagonist, a thirty-something man named Billy Brown, has just been released from prison after serving his sentence, having been framed for some kind of fraud. Angry and otherwise profoundly disturbed, he kidnaps Layla, a teenage ballet student, in order to pass her off as his wife to his terrible parents. In the course of a day of aimless meandering, filled with Billy Brown threatening and berating Layla, it becomes clear that the young man has been traumatized by his dysfunctional upbringing, his friend’s betrayal, and a history of romantic rejection. Believing he has nothing to live for, Billy is going to let Layla go and kill the man who had framed him. Ultimately, however, Billy and Layla fall for each other, and Billy decides not to kill the man.

What it’s supposed to mean: The kind, insightful Layla quickly realizes that Billy is not a monster. Rather, underneath all that brutish, violent exterior is a scared little boy who just wants to be loved. She understands that when all is said and done, he is a victim of circumstances and various bad people, and she has a chance to heal him and help him be a better person. Whereas a more shallow, less intelligent woman would have talked back to Billy, run away or called the police, Layla wisely submits to Billy’s never-ending stream of abuse with dignity and calm, until such time as Billy’s soul-searching leads him to change his behavior and realize he has a second chance at life with Layla.

What it really means: Let’s start from the fact that the movie asks us to suspend disbelief where it really shouldn’t. Letting an abuser go on abusing does not lead him to realize that abuse is bad. Assholes are never ashamed of anything they can get away with.

After watching this movie, I went to Wikipedia to get some idea about its screenwriter, director and lead, and was not really that surprised to learn that Vincent Gallo identifies as a “radical” Republican. Because OF COURSE he does. Because underneath all the bohemian trappings and the by-now tired conventions of indie cinema, Buffalo ‘66 is drenched in misogynistic romanticism. It creates precisely that mythical universe in which a woman’s highest calling is to serve as an emotional punching bag to a man who feels he needs one.

The story of “Beauty and the Beast” can be understood in two ways: as a classic fairytale and as a cultural trope. As the former, most versions of “Beauty and the Beast” (Disney’s excepted) are wonderful, moving, and provide a refreshing break from most of classic children’s literature, where each character’s personality and importance to the story correspond to his or her physical appearance. (Disney does not entirely depart from that paradigm: its Beast changes into a gentler, better person and his physical transformation follows, reinforcing the notion that looks and personality are supposed to match. That’s not the case in all versions. In the Russian version of the fairy tale, for example, the Beast is a kind, noble, considerate, generous person from the very beginning, and the point of the story is that few people are actually capable of looking past his deformed shell. In one of the German versions, no actual transformation takes place at all; the Beast becomes beautiful in Beauty’s eyes only. But I digress.) As a cultural trope, “Beauty and the Beast” is toxic, not the least because it is relentlessly gendered: only the woman is ever called upon to put aside her pride and her instincts, and to look beyond appearances to see the person inside; the man, however, invariably gets a woman who is physically perfect as well as kind, generous and (non-threateningly) intelligent. The original
“Shrek” tried to tweak story somewhat, but never quite turned it on its head.

The grown-up variation of “Beauty and the Beast” is, of course, a story where the man is a Beast in a metaphorical sense: i.e. an abuser, or, at the very least, an insensitive lout. And boy, does Vincent Gallo’s “Billy Brown” fit the bill. Seconds after kidnapping Layla, he berates her about her car being a stick-shift model. He informs her that unless she do exactly as he says, he will chew her face off and kill her. He spends an entire day upbraiding and threatening her, telling her to shut up, telling her she is stupid, or ignorant, or otherwise worthless. She endures it all with nary a complaint and this is supposed to … inspire us? Buffalo ‘66 is the ultimate narcissistic male fantasy: at its center is a woman who is ethereally beautiful and perfectly compliant, one that our hero can subject to any degree of emotional cruelty, any insult, completely consequence-free; one who will always absolve her man of any responsibility for his brutish behavior, one who will forgive anything, and at the end of many hours of relentless abuse, will still welcome him to sob self-pityingly into her ample bosoms. And for all this, she gets a cookie.

That’s another thing — Gallo caps off Buffalo ‘66 by adding insult to the injury, Billy Brown buying his new girlfriend a heart-shaped cookie. The payoff is infinitesimal compared to what she has given up. It is built, clearly, on the tired old notion that women’s needs in love can be met perfectly well with chotchkies. Habitually rude behavior? A dozen roses should be able to take care of that. Infidelity? A piece of jewelry will make it all better. A lifetime of bitterness and inconsideration? Just buy her a new washer and send her on a Carnival cruise. I am not generally against gifts, but I have always been very suspicious of token presents being used to signal “a new beginning” or some form of making up for porcine behavior: the effect is to put the other person in the position of having to express gratitude by continuing in a terrible relationship. How can you slap a man in the face, metaphorically speaking, just as he is being thoughtful? So Billy Brown gets Layla a heart-shaped sugar cookie, because that’s what Gallo estimates to be the price of Layla’s dignity and peace of mind. That’s our happy ending.

Because when it comes to women, there is no wound so painful or so deep that won’t instantly heal, no wrong so egregious that won’t be compensated, no dream so cherished that can’t be fulfilled with a timely purchase of appropriately shaped baked goods. Amirite?

More from “What Does This Movie Mean?”:
Fabián Bielinsky’s “The Aura” (2005)
The Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” (2009)

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19 thoughts on “What Does This Movie Mean? Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo ‘66” (1998)

  1. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen this movie, but the only thing that’s ever stuck with me regarding Vincent Gallo is his pure, unadulterated narcissism. I really get the sense that his movies are just an oversized codpiece for is self-inflated ego. The “Beauty and the Beast” element you discuss here I remember irritating me, but not disgusting me to the point that Gallo’s incessant talking had.

    (Husband, during his standing ovation to that comment, just informed me that “Brown Bunny” is wholly unwatchable unless you have an insatiable lust for extreme close-ups of Gallo’s face.)

  2. Stupid cunt…YEAH, you just made me say cunt and I never say cunt.
    But YOU just made me say cunt.

    The insecure, infantile, hypocritical, one track mind you project is astounding.

    You are basically writing a piece on all of YOUR “unadulterated narcissism”, I just had to actually stop and leave a reply to this biased crap. You don’t understand a lot about things lady.

    This is the kind of thing I would be very embarrassed to write about. I can’t believe you actually have your name on here…must be fake.

    • My oh my. I’ve been blogging for almost a year, and I’ve only now attracted my first misogynist troll. I can’t believe it’s taken this long for some roving troglodyte to stop by here and call me a “stupid cunt”. Like all such gentlemen, he of course never before ever uttered the word “cunt”, never ever made a sexist comment in his life and never said anything negative about women — but then he found my entry about “Buffalo 66” (totally by accident!) and WHOA!! Total meltdown. Henceforth, he will be a cynical, woman-hating men’s rights advocate, leaving hundreds of bitterly weeping women in his triumphant wake, and this will all be because of me and my little blog post. It’s not every day that you see the logic of “you MADE me hit you” expressed so explicitly.

      Hey Steve? For godssake, man, you are in your fifties. And possibly a lawyer. Provided, of course, you really ARE posting under your real name. No matter — I don’t care. Unlike you and your ilk, I make no habit of harassing people off-line, even when their opinions piss me off. You and your friends, on the other hand, have been known to harass bloggers and their families offline in a most deviant and cowardly fashion. Therefore, I make no apologies for posting anonymously: it’s people like you who make anonymity necessary. Anyway, back to our sheep. Take some goddamned responsibility. We all choose what we become. You’ve made your choice, and it’s all on you. YOU are responsible for what you are, not me, and not anyone else. Just you.

      Oh, and — you are banned. Because this is my place, and your right to free speech ends at my doorstep. I decide whether or not you get to express yourself on my blog, and you have worn out your welcome, comrade. If you fail to abide by even the minimal standards of common civility, you don’t get to comment here. It’s as simple as that. Go hyperventilate on your own blog.

      Dismissed.

  3. Adelaide was a pretty name until I saw this, but now it just sounds like Gatorade.

  4. Pingback: What Does This Movie Mean? Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985) « This Ruthless World

  5. This is the first review of Bufallo ’66 out of others I’ve read or watched that stands out for its attention to detail and analysis. But some of the analysis is not based on a fair assessment of the facts of the plot and of Billy Brown’s gestures. Before I point these mistaken assessments of fact out, let me begin with my assessment of the movie.

    Bufallo ’66 is a movie that is one of my all-time favorites for its classic characterization of a conspicuously crude yet “helpless” man’s interaction with his parents, with Layla, and with that other sleazy woman Billy happens to meet at the restaurant Denny’s (the exalted image of whom he has fondly regarded since grade school and always been in love with). It is also such a personal favorite for the logical yet admittedly fantastical chain of events which lead to his achievement of being a common gentleman (which is, of course, achieved with Layla’s help). Layla is naïve about the universal impropriety that is the act of a kidnap, but she is also a dreamer for something more than ordinary life, which renders her open to interpretating her cross-town “captivity” as an opportunity to pursue an adventure–and it must be noted here that she is free throughout the so-called captivity to easily escape after Billy’s initial grabbing and dragging of her body.

    I interpret that this very naivite, which makes her accept Billy’s control over her where more worldly women would not accept that control (they “would have talked back to Billy, run away or called the police,” as you write about those worldly women whom the intention of the film does disavow as unimportant, as you correctly claim), actually gains her an unusually creative perspective enabling her to view his alleged “physical control” for what it is: powerless and, therefore, not true control. And the absence of any true control on his part makes her exert a true (psychological) control over him by submitting to him, very well knowing that she is now a position to fulfill her desire for adventure without being punished by him. (To see just how incompetent Billy is at his purpose of controlling her, see how she frustrates his attempts to do so when he takes her to meet his parents and when they sit in the photography booth.) You write that, “He informs her that unless she do exactly as he says, he will chew her face off and kill her.” That is just a superficiality–she knows that this is just the ridiculous bravado of a childish fool, and by the time he says that it is apparent to her and to the audience that he is “a desperate child in a man’s body, not a serial killer.

    You write that “Buffalo ‘66 is the ultimate narcissistic male fantasy: at its center is a woman who is ethereally beautiful and perfectly compliant, one that our hero can subject to any degree of emotional cruelty, any insult, completely consequence-free; one who will always absolve her man of any responsibility for his brutish behavior, one who will forgive anything, and at the end of many hours of relentless abuse, will still welcome him to sob self-pityingly into her ample bosoms.”

    If men do hold such a fantasy, Buffalo ’66 gives them no ground for it–not if they are savvy enough to recognize that there is no such striking male domination in this film, that there exists no such control by a man over a woman in this film.

    • I too had been waiting for a descent review that would tackle the “supposed” misogynist theme of the film wich i kind of agreed on when watching it but the fact the the character is never truly happy in the film (except for the bowling alley part and even in this his own ways make him fail) and in every other part he’s almost crying, it seemed to me its was not a fantasy, and at the end in the motel he cant even be touched he’s not even intersting in what most people describe as the best feeling in the world.

      he’s not having it, he’s dead allready and the plan is to take that Wood guy with him but then he sees everybody enjoying the girls wich do appear naked but only in the most classy and artistic fashion to top it all off he’s finaly in front of the guy “responsible” for his missfortune and the guy’s tottaly happy after having missed that kick and have a a whole lot of people hate him he can still enjoy himself thats where it hits him (billy) he hasent enjoyed himself in his whole life and if he kills this guy(woods) he probably never will.

      it its somehow a fantasy,but allmost all american movie are, but in no way is it degrading to women, its its visually stunning, and in some way almost empowering to women I mean yeaah its kind of fucked up to take so much shit from somebody but as John mentioned it if you look closely to each interaction it dose not seem Layla is actually beign manipulated she even drives the car because he cant (he’s the one thats useless not her) even drive stick maybe its dumb to assume this girl is looking for an adventure, i think in a way she not even an actual character but more a new path or conection for the main character to use or take in order for the story to change and our “hero” to evolve, the cookie is not a prize for the girl who took the punches but more of the only thing an useless guy like Billy could buy to show he can somehow care for someone.

      Ps. srry for my shit grammar im Mexican and English is not my native lenguage, I love both the bloggers review for mentioning the fact that the movie is or maybe can be interpreted as misogynist, as for the comment for pointing out its just maybe the character’s choise to be kidnapped

  6. bobtherecordguy on said:

    I think you totally missed the point. Layla may not even be real. She may just be a fantasy he created in his mind. Is the Moonchild scene reality? It’s not a ‘literal’ movie. If it was, she would be a morally defective character just as he is. But it isn’t. She is just a symbol.
    Having said that, as dicey as VG may be in real life, his role is not a projection of narcissistic ego. No narcissist would present himself to the world as a sociopath. He was trying to present an extreme version of a character; he did a good job.

  7. First, it’s a film. It’s up to the viewer to decide who’s who and what’s what. Hopefully people will recognize the absurd nature of the male characters behavior and learn from it. Second, why do you take everything so personally? If some loon kidnapped me and called me names I think I too would pity the loon, not myself. I think, in this case what the woman does is kind of admirable. She’s strong enough to know that the bs the guy feeds her reflects his weakness not her own. And she’s willing to sacrafice herself in a way to save the life of another. I think that’s pretty special. In real life would I suggest this in this particular scenario, most likely not. But films consist of literary devices and things that put them in a camp we not always compare to realty. Which is ironic because when it comes to realty I think your’re a victim of your own game here. You mentioned that the filmmaker claims to be a radical republican which made sense to you in light of the problems you have with the film. Why do you assume that being republican and being an abuser go together better than being a democrat and being an abuser. Could it perhaps have to do with another false narrative that’s slipped past your radar or perhaps simply isn’t in support of your further agenda this not disabused. The facts: Democrats are more likely to participate in domestic abuse on a rate decidedly higher than republicans. You’re twice as likely to be murdered by an a abusing democrat than an abusing republican.

    • First, Mr. Smith, it is curious that you believe I’m taking the film personally — as it is clear to me that it is in fact YOU who is having a personal reaction to what I wrote. “It’s a film.” And …? “Birth of a Nation” is only a film. So is “Triumph of the Will”. To claim that a film has no connection to reality simply because it’s a film is patently absurd. Not all films reference outside life in equal measure, but fiction and reality are not as Chinese-walled from each other as you claim.

      There is a cliche at the center of this film. The theme of the angelic female ostensibly demonstrating “strength” by taking unspeakable abuse — which eventually demonstrates to the abuser that she’s worthy of his love — is a very old one. Hell, even Boccaccio included a story like that in the Decameron. And yes, it’s misogynistic as hell, and yes, it reflects a particular male fantasy; just like romanticizing female suicide or death in childbirth — two other very common scenarios in Western fiction — also reflect a particular fantasies of the “perfect woman”. If you don’t want to accept it, it’s fine by me; let’s agree to disagree.

      As to the Democrat-Republican thing, statistically, there is an 87% chance (at least) that you pulled that statistic out of your ass. (No offense intended, I just couldn’t think of a euphemism.) Ultimately, though, I don’t care. I’m not saying all Republicans abuse women, nor am I saying no Democrat ever has. That’s not the point. What matters in this context is that culturally, Republicans, unlike Democrats, adhere to a worldview in which women are subordinate and subservient to men; in which male-on-female abuse is a reason to pity the perpetrator, rather than revile him; in which men are the consumers and women are the product (this is the idea that underlies the notion that a woman must go to extraordinary lengths to merit the love of a man who is, frankly, a piece of shit); in which a woman demonstrates her “strengths” by dutifully taking a beating, or a hundred beatings. And it is Republicans, not Democrats who have attempted time and again to translate at least some of these principles into policy. It’s not individual behavior I’m talking about when I mention Gallo’s politics; it’s the culture that his film reflects.

      Lastly, the term “literary device” doesn’t mean what you think it means. Trust me, former French Lit major here. You know what IS a good example of a literary device in this movie? An image that conveys a figure of speech in literal terms: in this case, at the end of the movie, Layla gets a cookie .

      • LOL, This film is on the level of BOAN or Triumph of Will in cultural significance? A bit melodramatic. lol. And misogynistic, as if he hates women? How does he hate women or show that is a desirable ? He plays an ex-con creep who abuses a gentle woman and your warped world view that is woman hating? It is easy to say this is a dated, unreal view of the transformative power of a woman’s love, that is as far as an honest critic can go. It is the cultural mavens who have to work their mickey mouse politics into every damned thing

  8. You didn’t even get the synopsis correct. Also Layla isn’t a teenager she says she is 20 in the film. Billy isn’t a misogynist, he’s just lashing out at everyone. Why does this have to be male vs. female? Billy is rough and fragile, and Layla is poised and nurturing. Its a great dynamic. Why does layla have to be a victim?

  9. I think you have it right that the cookie is not sufficient, but I think that counteracts the meaning you find in this movie. Layla is the hero of this story, and not because she is smart or capable. All of the characters around her are the villains of the story, and she chooses to love them anyway. She saves two lives in doing so, which would make a thriller if this was the typical trope. This movie contains a great deal of misogyny, but that does not make it a misogynist film: quite the opposite. It elevates to a heroic ideal the emotional labor that is generally ignored or shamed in most films, and often in every day life.

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