The past year has been pretty good to cut rate petty criminals as far as cinema goes. Towards the end of 2014, Jake Gyllenhaal made waves with his charmingly creepy performance in the sociopathic yellow journalism flick Nightcrawler and before that even Wes Anderson got in on the action with the fleet of criminals decorating the interior of The Grand Budapest Hotel. But those films were still basically wish fulfilment, Nightcrawler detailing an amoral depiction of the American dream and its promise of riches if you just work hard enough while The Grand Budapest Hotel illustrated a very romantic notion of that same dream of hard work paying off, albeit with ample family tragedy and vicious fights between heirs. Joel Potrykus’s Buzzard, though, is a very different story of criminality, one that is ultimately more consciously pointless and bizarre.
Constructed in a loose enough fashion that it’s bound to garner a number of Slacker comparisons, Buzzard is actually more purposefully aimless, following Marty (Joshua Burge, nearly as googly eyed as Jake Gyllenhaal), a mortgage firm temp whose chief purpose in life appears to be carrying out cheap scams that require a lot more work than they provide reward. Dangerously bored by the drudgery of his relatively cushy temp job, Marty exorcises his raging ennui by doing things like closing checking accounts just to open a new one at the same bank for a $50 bonus or calling in complaints to microwave pizza manufacturers in order to get coupons. Unlike Office Space’s focus on an “enlightened” office drone who is surrounded by people equally fed up with work, Buzzard makes Marty an outlier, a temp who gets that his job doesn’t matter but doesn’t have the intelligence to properly articulate his frustrations, let alone move past them. Worse, everyone around him, especially his “work friend” Derek (Potrykus himself), is happy to be there, wasting away the days, counting on a potential promotion to non-temp status before too long.
The film’s semi-vignette structure amplifies this effect, making each scene mimic the day in-day out anonymity of Marty’s life. Potrykus never names Marty’s hometown and the scenery is devoid of all identity—Marty’s workplace doesn’t even look complete, it’s like the bank overseeing the operation and intended the mortgage division to be temporary altogether, hence the temps and unadorned work spaces. And that bleeds over into Marty’s domestic abode, a two floor apartment or home or who knows what that he’s tried to decorate with horror movie paraphernalia, which only makes it look more like a dorm or some other blank canvas living space.
The first half of the movie digs into all this anonymity and initially leads the viewer to believe it’s going to be one of those post-Napoleon Dynamite indie comedies where nothing ever happens and everyone is weird for the sake of being weird. Eventually, though, Marty stumbles into his “big score” after his manager dumps some undelivered refund checks on his desk and tasks him with tracking the owners down. After a few too many calls that end in hang-ups when Marty mentions he’s calling on behalf of a mortgage company, Marty decides to sign the checks over to himself and live off the meager earnings. It is a remarkably stupid plan for a number of reasons, but the film’s real descent into darkness comes via its devotion to making the viewer squirm and wince as they wait for Marty’s sure-to-come tragic ending.
This back half of the film is not only better crafted than the first, it’s rather unique, ramping up the tension by never providing any real information about Marty’s past or background, instead only offering teases here and there in conversation. Without any knowledge of who Marty really is, you’re left unsure of what he’s capable of or how desperate he’ll really become. Once Marty goes “on the run” and inexplicably heads to that workers’ dystopia Detroit, the film cuts its own brakes and never gives the viewer a chance to untense. The sluggish pacing and Burge’s intense devotion to the almost alien naivety and borderline sociopathic disconnection of his character help matters, making what could have been a gloriously bad B-movie into something a little more poetic and haunting.
Buzzard will be available on demand on Friday, March 6th
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.