Nobody makes an exit from prison quite like Vincent Gallo, whether it's the opening scene of last year's Truth or Consequences, N.M. and he's ticked off, itching for a drug heist, or it's the opening scene of this year's Buffalo '66, and he's looking gaunt, weary and in need of a bathroom.

In the latter film, which also marks Gallo's feature directing debut--he wrote the story, co-authored the screenplay and composed the music, too--the actor plays Billy Brown, a short-fused, not too bright fellow, who has just finished a five-year stretch in the state penitentiary, having conned his parents into believing he wasn't in the pen at all but on a top-secret mission for the federal government.

Released into the dreary landscape of Buffalo, New York, in the middle of winter, Billy kidnaps a blonde, tap-dancing teenager named Layla (Christina Ricci) and makes a beeline for his parents' home, with Layla in tow. 'You can eat all the food you want,' Billy promises his bemused captive, 'just make me look good.'

Back in the cheerless house where he grew up--Mom and Dad are rabid Buffalo Bills fans but don't care much about their flesh and blood--Billy palms off Layla as his wife 'Wendy,' only to have his parents, Jimmy (Ben Gazzara) and Janet (Anjelica Huston), take to her immediately, pretty much ignoring their ex-con son. That seems to be the story of Billy's life--his folks admit to having only one photograph of him in their family album.

Even minus the kewpie-doll-like Layla, the Browns could qualify for the cover of Dysfunctional Family magazine. Irritable Janet is riveted to the TV screen, watching old tapes of the Bills. Jimmy, taking advantage of his sudden 'father-in-law' status, paws 'Wendy' and tries to dazzle her by lip-synching to a recording of 'Fools Rush In.' In a bizarre touch, the film's credits attribute the original vocals to 'Vincent Gallo, Sr.'

Meanwhile, an increasingly sullen Billy is brooding over his plan to get revenge on those who sent him up the river. Billy's main focus is on Scott Woods, a former place-kicker for the Bills, whose missed field goal sealed Buffalo's loss in the Super Bowl, a game on which Billy bet $10,000 he didn't have. Unable to fork over that amount to a local bookie (Mickey Rourke), Billy had to take the jail rap for one of the bookie's associates, if he wanted to keep on living. To this day, Billy is convinced the kicker missed the crucial field goal on purpose.

While its narrative has some inventive twists and turns, Buffalo '66 doesn't stray too far from being a character-driven, eccentric romance. Nor should it, since the chemistry between Gallo's vacant-eyed misfit and Ricci's ingenuous waif is such an ongoing delight. True, Billy is a vicious kidnapper and the sweet-natured Layla deserves better, but we come to care about their quirky relationship as it unfolds.

Once Billy and Layla escape the Browns' suffocating family setting, they wander through a nighttime urban landscape that seems curiously empty. Whether in a bowling alley, in a fast-food joint or on an empty street, the atmosphere is lifeless, and the unlikely couple move as though they were underwater. They cross paths with Wendy (Rosanna Arquette), who might have been Billy's high-school girlfriend, and eventually check into a seedy motel, where Billy pleads with Layla to hold him, then orders her not to touch him. Eventually, Billy will have to choose between love and an empty future.

Considering Buffalo '66 is a first feature, Gallo hasn't made his directing assignment any easier by electing to shoot on 35mm reversal stock, a troublesome process that produces the saturation of colors and contrasts often associated with Super-8 movies. The result is a kind of poetic hyper-realism that italicizes this eccentric little road movie that never really leaves home.

With all his other assignments on the film, Gallo still manages a richly textured performance as the not always likeable Billy. As for Ricci, whose brilliance was evident as far back as the Addams Family movies, she endows Layla with an irresistible humanity that interlaces well with Billy's guilty resentment. 'Just look like you like me,' Billy asks Layla, while the two of them are squeezed into a photo booth, trying to confirm reality, and Layla does her best to comply. Buffalo '66 has a wealth of moments like that on its way to crystalizing hope against a backdrop of despair.

--Ed Kelleher