The opening minutes of Joel Potrykus’ “Buzzard” include a prolonged shot of hustling temp worker Marty (Joshua Burge) as he calmly attempts to con the bank that barely employs him out of a few hundred dollars. Burge’s long features, tousled hair and maniacal eyes say it all: This is the face of pure anarchic rage against the system. Potrykus’ wildly entertaining black comedy takes its cues from that alarming expression. A slapstick horror show about millennial frustrations with the job market, “Buzzard” is among the first great American satires of the 21st century, its scathing indictment of capitalism delivered as a prolonged, disorienting punchline.
Potrykus has been building to a movie with this kind of focused intensity. “Buzzard” forms the third entry in a loosely-defined trilogy of animal-themed projects, all of which star the Buster Keaton-like Burge as a pariah driven by instant gratification and fueled by his frustrations: “Coyote” revolved around a junkie werewolf, “Ape” focused on a deranged pyromaniac comedian, while “Buzzard” gives us a credible fusion of those more exaggerated personas: just a regular guy infuriated by the pressures of the job market who chooses to reject its suppressive forces. His loopy intentions ultimately set him on a path toward self-destruction. Chasing whatever scraps he can find, this human vulture has no shame.
With its hilariously unhinged plot, “Buzzard” manages to entertain and unsettle in equal measures. In the drab settings of the early scenes, Marty and his goofy office mate Derek (Potrykus, a bald, bespectacled geek with a cheshire cat grin) engage in a rascally exchange that defines the malaise at the center of their existence. While Marty casually flaunts his ability to steal clients’ checks by signing them over to himself, Derek blasts music from his cubicle and announces the glorious prospects of his “party zone” — aka, his parents’ basement, where the duo later tear through snacks and waste away their off-hours playing video games.
It’s there that “Buzzard” arrives at its strongest visual gag, in which Derek consumes pieces of Bugles from a moving treadmill while a bemused Marty looks on. He has bigger plans for bigger scams, at least until they erupt in his face. There’s a combination of thrill and uneasiness to Marty’s twisted intentions as he attempts to cash out a large volume of checks. In the meantime, he furnishes a bizarre new toy out of apparent boredom — a ramshackle version of a Freddy Krueger claw wired to an old Nintendo glove — which becomes his last, absurd defense against forces beyond his control. The weapon’s fusion of cultural reference points is a brilliantly charged symbol of Marty’s dementia. He lives in a world of consumerism even when he tears it apart.
Eventually, he goes on the lam, with mixed results. But Marty excels at blocking out his problems by living large. Spending the night at a posh hotel on stolen dollars, he messily dines on spaghetti, spreading tomato sauces around his bathrobe. It’s an apt illustration of his limited worldview. He has no canny pyramid schemes in his back pocket, settling instead for instant gratification each time out.
Marty’s plans are ultimately as pathetic as Derek’s party zone, but the masterstroke of “Buzzard” comes from the extent to which Marty doesn’t it see that way. In his naughty approach to petty theft as the ultimate rebellious act, he’s the physical embodiment of a subverted American dream for a recession-era generation. Rather than fighting to get by, he fights to get away with getting by, and loves it. Potrykus’ eerie style, replete with heavy metal cues and long takes that bring us into Marty’s two-bit schemes, makes it easy to enjoy the character’s lunacy — right up to the eerie finale, when that rush of excitement arrives at an inevitable reality check.
Or does it? The finale includes just enough ambiguity to leave Marty’s fate uncertain. As the movie arrives at its frantic, violent climax, “Buzzard” ominously ventures into an abstract plane. His only respite from the work force comes from his continuing attempts to flee his problems — but even then, “Buzzard” reminds us, the prankster can never settle down.
“Buzzard” opens in limited release and on VOD this Friday.