Directed by Vincent Gallo
Written by Gallo and Alison Bagnall
With Gallo, Cristina Ricci, Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Hutton.
Distributed by Lions Gate Films
Directed and written by Hal Hartley
With James Urbaniak, Thomas Jay Ryan and Parker Posey
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Why am I reviewing both of these films together? Well, both break new ground in the ever-ossifying non-Hollywood (I hesitate to use the word "independent" ) cinema of today. In the case of BUFFALO 66, one might expect Vincent Gallo to toss off an ego-driven love letter to himself. Instead, the results are surprisingly warm and sweet-hearted. As for HENRY FOOL, one might expect just another quirky comedy about wacky suburbanites from Hartley, especially coming after the aesthetic and commercial failure of his experimentation in FLIRT. Instead, it stretches into darker territory than he's ever ventured before.
As anyone who's read an interview with Vincent Gallo knows, he can be a pompous prick with dubious politics, sexual and otherwise. (Although I like the idea of him running for office as a Republican, assuming anything he says is meant as anything other than a provocation.) Traces of these tendencies do pop up in BUFFALO 66, in the male fantasy that sustains the plot and, more worryingly, in an ugly outburst of homophobia near the beginning. Yet they don't overwhelm or even dominate the film. The outline of BUFFALO 66 might sound like a cliche, but it feels resonant and moving onscreen.
BUFFALO 66 begins when Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo) is released from prison. He hasn't told his parents that he's been in jail, instead spinning an elaborate story about a secret, long-term CIA job . While looking for a bathroom in dreary downtown Buffalo, he stops off at a dance school and winds up kidnapping a young woman named Layla, proceeding to rename her Wendy Balsam (Christina Ricci.) Together, the two go to his parents' house for dinner, and she poses as his wife. The air is filled with tension, as his Buffalo Bills-obsessed mother (Anjelica Hutton) can barely take her eyes off the tube to talk to her son and his father (Ben Gazzara) just acts passive/aggressive, although Wendy does her best to talk Billly's virtues up. Gradually, Billy's story emerges in flashback. He was sent to jail by a bookie, in lieu of paying a $10,000 debt on a Super Bowl bet, and wound up doing five years. Now he's haunted by memories of the real Wendy Balsam, with whom he went to high school, and a zest for revenge on the footballer who fumbled that goal.
For a first-time director, BUFFALO 66 is an astonishingly accomplished piece of direction, both in terms of visual style and direction of actors. (Even the trailer was a real accomplishment!) The cinematographer shoots through blue and yellow filters, making Buffalo look like chilly, monochromatic and uninviting. Gallo makes sparing use of cropped-screen effects to set up flashbacks. But what's most surprising about the film is the way it avoids cliches, even if the screenplay seems to veer directly into them. The proceedings don't come to a violent conclusion, nor does Billy suddenly become the bluebird of happiness once he falls in love. But he can finally see the point of going on living.
HENRY FOOL's Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) gets launched on a profession on a poet when he meets the film's title character (Thomas Jay Ryan), while working as a garbageman. Despite his many and manifest flaws (foremost among them being a penchant for underage girls, which landed him in prison), Fool does succeed in inspiring Grim to write alongside him. When posted in the local convenience store, Grim's poetry gains a cult following among local high school students, while being denounced as filth by others. He's initially rejected by publishers, but he becomes a minor celebrity after some of the poetry is printed on the Internet. His star eventually rises, while Henry's falls steadily.
HENRY FOOL is a messy film, but life can sometimes be that way too. Its messiness shouldn't be underestimated, but it seems to stem from a desire to catch every errant emotion and sensation of his characters, including bodily sensations, rather than a lack of discipline. That said, the film is a bit too long and sometimes badly paced. Once Simon leaves, the film gets seriously grueling. The final scenes go a step further into serious suburban anomie than Hartley has ever ventured; the neighborhood of Woodside, Queens feels like a suburb of Hell. Simon and Henry's drive isn't merely an ambition; it's a desperate attempt to transcend their surroundings.
Hartley reportedly set out to make PREMIERE with the intention of finally having a commercial hit. Surprisingly, the results are the most perverse film he's ever made (and not the most accessible, either.) But something good may have come from these dubious intentions. More than any film he's made since TRUST, HENRY FOOL has a real emotional outreach. Unlike some of his recent films, it doesn't feel like an academic project, a good idea stretched too far and too thin. HENRY FOOL challenges the boundaries of what a "Hal Hartley film" might be, while BUFFALO 66 suggests what a "Vincent Gallo film" might be. Either choice is a larger adventure than anything else Indiewood has thrown our way so far this year.