It’s hard to look away from the face of Joshua Burge: his bug eyes recall Peter Lorre in their constant vigilant paranoia. But his angular femininity that comes from his soft mouth and sleek cheekbones suggest an approachability that contrasts with the sharpness of his more intimidating features. He would have played villains and scoundrels in the silent era, ones that had a vulnerable secret. Joel Potrykus‘ “Buzzard” reveals that not much has changed since then.
Burge’s Marty works in bank supplies, where he listlessly zones out as an intern at an anonymous cubicle. His responsibilities are limited, and because of a lax work environment, he commits various abuses in the name of a little extra cash, like returning expensive unused supplies for cash or taking extended breaks to stretch his few dollars to the maximum. It’s a relatively joyless existence: Marty is the kind of guy who won’t sit in a chair unless its a recliner, and even then he’ll bitch about the cushioning. His relationships with co-workers lean towards the functional: he’s as pleasant as he needs to be, because he’s got one foot out the door, and his “playful” banter with them usually ends on an un-ironic tell-off.
Marty’s antisocial behavior will ring familiar to anyone who has seen an early Jarmusch film: he’s a rebel against society’s social standards, because. He goes home to an empty, poorly-furnished apartment, where he noodles with a Nintendo Powerglove, turning it into a Freddy Krueger-style bladed weapon. His pop culture interests, which include horror movies, are not necessarily relevant. The poster of “Leviathan” hanging on his wall, college dorm-like, over his stereo? He has no interest in explaining why it’s not “The Abyss” instead.
Potrykus’ film begins as a portrait of ennui, before becoming a flat-out disaster movie. What begins as the story of a modern day con-man (with notable echoes of Bresson‘s “Pickpocket”) turns with the realization that Marty is, to put it kindly, an imbecile. His interest in inflating his bank account clashes with his absolute apathy toward doing any real work, and he has no understanding of the legality of his actions. When his boss places a pile of undelivered checks in his lap, you wince, but Burge’s eyes bulge with amazement as if he’s cracked some unspoken code. Potrykus has a darkly comic understanding of Marty’s delusions, and his penchant for placing Burge in the middle of the frame forces you to confront a character who thinks he’s five steps ahead, and not ten steps behind.
“Buzzard” relieves the tension of it’s dark farce with more overt comic sequences with Marty’s blinkered co-worker, Derek, played by Potrykus himself. When Marty’s indiscretions come to light, he bullies Derek into letting him stay in his basement. The comic pairing is inspired: Burge’s Marty has absolute disdain for everything around him, but his poker face upon accepting a visit to Derek’s “Party Zone” magnifies Marty’s comic alienation. Derek, with his tight shirts, weak frame and threshold for humiliation, proves to be an amusing temporary foil, bridging the lightweight first act with the hardcore third.
Marty’s world eventually begins to shrink, and it’s a credit to Potrykus’ film that the moment where the laughs stop will differ from viewer to viewer. The handheld camera becomes a little shakier, nervier, and the cuts more jarring and abrupt. Much of this is probably due to practicality: apparently much of “Buzzard” was shot clandestinely, using permit-less guerrilla filming strategies in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But it actually feels more like a loss of control, as if a platform was slipping and the camera were trying to hold on. The final twenty minutes of “Buzzard” are squirm-worthy in the best way, as Marty foolishly attempts to extricate himself from blame while also walking right into further trouble. A brief slip-up attempts to provide a diagnosis for Marty’s condition, but otherwise, his decayed mental state recalls the work of Lodge Kerrigan in the dissipating logic of the protagonist infecting the film like a disease. “Buzzard” is a quiet, introspective film, but it trumps all generic blockbusters in that it very much is a roller coaster ride, one that thrills, upsets, and makes one queasy, all in surprising ways. [A-]