Jeb Happy’s review published on Letterboxd:
This is a fairly in-depth analysis, so I do not recommend reading this review without having seen the film.
Billy Brown, donning an aptly alliterative name and red boots, desperately wants to be a cowboy. He rejects his emotions, recoils from human touch, and worst of all, treats women like "backstabbers," as he bluntly, exasperatedly claims during a breakdown in a Denny's. In other words, Billy Brown wishes he was a movie cowboy, but has no clue what they actually are or how they act.
Cowboys throughout cinematic history have employed a rugged, stoic expression, hiding a pained past behind their masculine facade, and eager to take their frustrations out on disrupters of the peace, with collected focus and wit. Vincent Gallo's Billy Brown understands this characterization, to a certain extent -- except the pain he attempts to hide away is prominent; the people he harms are innocent; he is pitiful, not heroic.
We meet Billy right as he is exiting prison, and desperately searching for a bathroom after the bus brings him downtown. He finally finds one in a cafe hosting a dance class, where Layla is introduced, who Billy drags out with him against her will, and commands her to act like his wife to bring home to his parents, who he has not seen since he went to prison, and think he has been living happily married all this time.
The plot is ludicrous, and wondrously so. Cassavetes could not have etched together so lawless a scenario; and yet Gallo reinforces his narrative with beguilingly focused and surrealist cinematic ambition. Like a sobering Lynchian hellscape, Billy Brown's arrested development has the dreamlike air of a tragic farce. Memories plague his mind, appearing onscreen to box out the present, as though the audience were being pulled into the man's subconscious attic.
The present is at war with the past in Gallo's cult classic. Every phrase uttered repetitiously, every reassuring touch denied, seems a learned defense mechanism from a cruel upbringing. Billy is right, he is pitiful, and Gallo seems to be arguing that pity is the ultimate placator for loneliness. Not only from the hollow compassion of others, but from the alienated man himself.
Buffalo '66 provides a cruelly awkward experience to watch. Billy's parents seem entirely aloof around him (though they themselves provide memorable moments depicting their own shortcomings which they are unable to move on from), the very sight of his childhood home makes him sick to his stomach, and at nearly every moment possible, he derails Layla's enthusiasm, however slight, seemingly just for the sake of being as malevolent as he can be. He is an insufferable person -- but Gallo decidedly aims to humanize him.
A lofty, irrational bet costs him his Life and sends young Billy to prison, after an intimidating bookie (played by a surprising Mickey Rourke) demands he take the rap for a convicted man in court. This slip-up, evinced by the memory boxes filling the screen as he leaves the joint, has eroded his mental state, and effectively stricken his last surving bit of innocence from the records of his subconscious.
His pernicious father, who he appears to take a little too much after, kills his beloved dog when he is a boy right in front of him, because he forgot to let him outside (perhaps why adult Billy gets so nutty about peeing all the time). And when Layla finally rejects him at the Denny's, his emotional collapse in the bathroom resurrects his compassion; seems to open his eyes to the girl's considerate presence.
Billy does not so much reject women as he is terrified of them. The closest the film comes to a sex scene is during a provocatively suggestive collage of images at a bowling alley (complete with a climaxing strike), and later in a hotel room, where the two lost souls share a brief kiss before Billy buries his head in her belly and she holds him while caressing his back, as an oldies jazz tune plays. The man longs for the mother he never had; any sort of paternal tenderness.
Layla may appear at first to lack complexity. But consider her blank stare when she is introduced in the dance class. Or her surrealist tapdancing sequence at the bowling alley. Or the way she nags at Billy to open up to her, as if she knows fully well that his toxic behavior is merely a mask to shield his crushed spirit. Billy is the primary focus of Buffalo '66's character study -- but Layla provides just as compelling a portrait of dejected heartache, simply by more natural cinematic means.
A cold handshake goodbye turns to an embrace, and Gallo moves the camera to the back of Layla's head, focused on a strand of her silver hair which Billy clutches at tenderly, his slightly blurred face expressing comfort and doubt. It is a beautiful moment, entirely relayed through considerable cinematic effort, and a fitting climax for a film fascinated with the nomadic journey of listless, lovelorn individuals.
The final bloody act in Scott Woods's tittybar (heavily reminiscent of Taxi Driver's finale) sends Billy straight into the sinful bowels of Hell to confront the demons plaguing him; before he wrenches himself out of the nightmare, realising that to act with mindless vengeance on his past traumas would be futile. The cowboy act proves an unremarkable ploy.
Ultimately, if Gallo were to have dismissed Billy's redeeming finale, then his film would have proved a meaningless exercise; would have posited the notion that, Once an asshole, always an asshole. Which would be bullshit. Instead, Billy realises the power he possesses to overcome his traumas; to take it one day at a time.
The only moment is the present moment. All we can do is love. Hot chocolates and heart cookies can carry the same transformative power as missed field goals. Spend the effort on compassion, and the future is surely bright. Kindness prevails.