Buzzard, a darkly comic independent film about a callous and manipulative office temp, has been making the rounds in select theaters and streaming online, but it deserves a higher profile. Percolating just beneath its deadpan humor, crass characters and bursts of violence is an incisive portrait of twentysomething disaffection, one that’s especially pertinent to this time of underemployment and income inequality.
Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge) is the buzzard of the title. If he’s not a literal scrounger of carrion, then he’s easily the human counterpart. A mangy, ineffective bank employee, Marty spends most of his time pulling little scams, such as regularly calling the complaint line for his favorite frozen pizza and talking his way into free coupons. One day, he sees a bigger opportunity. Given a bunch of unclaimed checks and told by his bank supervisor to contact their intended recipients, Marty concocts a plan to sign them over to himself, a harebrained scheme that inevitably begins to unravel.
Working with writer-director Joel Potrykus, Burge creates one of those transfixing movie characters from whom you can’t look away – even if you don’t like what you’re seeing. Insolent to the people he’s ripping off and abusive to the coworker who lets him crash in his “party zone” (i.e., the coworker’s father’s basement), Marty is no charming con man. Perhaps his most definitive moment is the bizarrely funny, single-take scene in which he messily downs a plate of spaghetti, one gloppy meatball at a time.
Food is a recurring motif in Buzzard, and there’s a reason why Marty mostly scarfs down horribly unhealthy snack items (Hot Pockets feature prominently). It’s not only the convenience factor – he acts like a 13-year-old much of the time, so why not eat like one? – but also a question of cost. Living measly paycheck to measly paycheck, Bugles and Mountain Dew dinners are all he can afford.
If much of Burge’s performance is designed to alienate us from Marty, Potrykus’ camera frequently functions in the same way. During an opening scene, in which Marty closes a checking account and then immediately opens a new one just to get the $50 incentive payment, the camera focuses on Marty alone. The back of the teller’s head, to whom he’s talking, only occasionally drifts into the frame. The technique emphasizes him as a man apart from respectable society, as an antisocial irritant, a pecking bird.
Marty is a man apart by choice, certainly, yet Buzzard is also attuned to the ways society has been constructed to work against him. There are his low wages, for instance, which hardly incentivize him to give much of an effort at all - especially considering the bank he’s working for is raking in millions. Looking around, he sees a dog-eat-dog, for-profit economy that runs on predatory yet legal scams, such as the payday loan office where one of the instances of violence tellingly takes place.
What’s more, as the movie goes on we begin to suspect that Marty’s antisocial behavior may be a symptom of mental illness. Brief, almost subliminal shots of him wearing one of the horror-movie Halloween masks he collects certainly suggest a fractured psyche. Yet in the economic class to which Marty belongs, attending to one’s mental health is a luxury good.
Buzzard, then, performs a delicate balancing act. While acknowledging poor decisions on Marty’s part, it also understands the socio-economic context he finds himself in and the psychological challenges he may be facing. In short, it’s about as holistically minded as so-called slacker comedies come.