Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Carrion Discomfort: Buzzard

Joshua Burge stars in Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard.

As Marty, the title character of Joel Potrykus’ Buzzard, Joshua Burge has the bantamweight build and long, skinny face of a classic smartass, urban American type—a synthesis of James Woods, Richard Belzer, and Steve Buscemi for the post-slacker era. His eyes are alternatively heavy-lidded and wreathed in boredom or as huge and searching as a baby’s; his sarcastic asides and random outbursts of disgust (“Taco Bell sucks!”) are delivered in a husky, nasal voice that seems to weigh more than his body. Marty has a temp job in the mortgage department of a bank, but he spends all his time at work running petty scams, such as ordering expensive office supplies that he then steals so he can lope over to the supplier’s nearest branch store and pocket the case returns. In the movie’s long, transfixing first scene, the camera holds him in close-up as he dully instructs a bank clerk to cancel out his checking account, then announces that he wants to open a new account, so he can collect the fifty dollars the bank is offering as a come-on for virgin customers.

That opening scene ends with a freeze frame of Marty’s face as his bored face breaks into a triumphant grin; he’s thrilled with himself over having taken a three-hour break from his own job to score a lousy, ill-gotten fifty dollars, and also at having wasted the time of another bank employee who plays by the rules. It’s a little disappointing that Marty never shows that kind of spark again. I’ve seen reviews that invoked the term “Angry Young Man” to describe Potrykus’ work—he previously made the feature Ape and a short film called Coyote, also both starring Joshua Burge—but the most memorable British Angries of the ‘60s were highly verbal and furiously articulate about their disgust with both their society and themselves. Marty isn’t much of a talker, and his cultural frame of reference is mostly limited to those strains of junk culture—thrash metal, horror movies, video games—that give him a channel for his rage. (He fashions a Nintendo Power Glove into a tacky-looking replica of Freddy Krueger’s taloned hand, a prop that serves the function of that gun on the wall in the famous quote by Chekhov.)

Joel Potrykus and Joshua Burge in Buzzard.
Buzzard would be a livelier movie if Marty took more zest from his low-rent life of crime and general inertia, but it doesn’t need an articulate protagonist to feel very much of this moment. At his most fascinating, Marty is a prole antihero for the Occupy era, a grubby con man who knows that something has gone wrong with the American dream, and who uses the word “corporate” as an all-purpose insult, but who has no larger conception or game plan and certainly has no sympathetic feeling for his fellow wage slaves. The first half hour of Buzzard has a mean, funny, bottom-dweller’s edge to it, and the rattiness of the low-budget filmmaking is perfectly scaled to its blinkered protagonist. After Marty finally overreaches, stealing a bunch of refund checks he imagines he’ll be able to cash himself, he turns fearful and paranoid and spends the middle of the movie hiding out in the basement of a co-worker (played by the director), a pathetic, arrested adolescent who’s the closest thing he has to a friend. This extended section—with the two gamer deadbeats hanging out together in close quarters, trying to have fun together without doing anything that might trigger their tendency to homosexual panic—supplies more in the nature of anthropological interest than it does in drama.

Buzzard bears a superficial resemblance to a current strain of low-budget American indies—such as Ben and Joshua Safdie’s Daddy Longlegs and Nathan Silver’s Soft in the Head—that amount to up-close case studies of unbearably self-involved, possibly deranged, marginal types, movies that just about dare you to keep watching them. Buzzard is more involving and easier on the eyes than those pictures (except for a four-minute shot of Marty, stretched out on a hotel bed wearing a white robe, messily eating spaghetti). It has the potential to actually be about something, because the central character’s self-destructive, living-for-this-second grunginess and anger have real resonance right now. It’s a letdown when, instead of expanding the character or building a story around him, Potrykus settles for one more easy chart of a crazy loser’s downward spiral. But these days, a quirky indie film that doesn’t set out to give the audience a case of the warm and fuzzies deserves a little respectful appreciation.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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