Saturday, October 3, 2015

Sympathy For the "Buzzard"

There have been movies about characters like Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge) before.  He's a small time con artist and lowlife who makes one bad move too many in Joel Potrykus's "Buzzard."  Marty resembles the slacker heroes of the '90s superficially, but he's also very distinctly a creature of post-Great Recession America, a man-child reprobate with a very particular set of vices: pop-culture and video game fixations, a junk food diet, and an almost pathological need to scam and cheat the system wherever he can.

I know guys like Marty, the guys who never grew up or got anywhere in life, and are ashamed of it to some degree.  However, they hide their insecurities with outsized posturing and bragging, devoting their energies to spinning webs of lies and deceptions to make themselves look good.  Marty is a temp office worker for a bank, but spends most of his time running little scams and grifts.  When we first meet him, he's in the process of closing and reopening a checking account to take advantage of a fifty dollar promotion, all during a three hour lunch break where nobody important notices that he's gone.  Then he steals office supplies and makes false returns at a nearby store, pocketing the cash.  Marty is a scumbag to be sure, who is easy to hate for his brazen disregard for other people and social rules, but at the same time it's impressive how well he navigates the infuriating corporate bureaucracy, and makes it work for him.  Until, of course, he overreaches and everything starts to unravel.

"Buzzard" is very low budget, with lots of hand held camera, natural lighting, and guerilla setups.  A good chunk of the film takes place in the basement of Marty's friend Derek (Potrykus), who lets him crash on the couch for a few nights.  The shoestring aesthetic is very appropriate, as Marty resembles more than a few vloggers I've come across online recently, sending out their cheaply produced video missives from their basements and bedrooms.  However, Potrykus also successfully creates this wonderful sense of larger, darker forces looming over the story.  Marty's paranoia grows as his scams start backfiring, he goes on the run, and he realizes how badly equipped he is to survive away from the corporate world he's cultivated this parasitic relationship with.  It's one of the more fascinating depictions of an individual versus American society I've seen in a while, especially when you realize the extent to which Marty has been shaped and controlled by his environment.

A lot of credit should go to Joshua Burge for his performance.  Burge is sickly, smarmy, and strange in all the right ways.  Initially you want Marty to get his comeuppance, to suffer the consequences of behaving so horribly.  When the tide starts turning against him, however, he becomes more vulnerable and sympathetic.  And dangerous.  His best scenes are where he's pretending that everything is all right, during what should be humdrum transactions with clerks and cashiers.  Because Marty is increasingly frightened that one of these encounters will expose him as a fraud, they become tenser and tenser as the film goes on.  The film gets pretty indulgent at times, including a long take of Marty eating spaghetti that was probably included to emphasize his oddness, but Burge held my attention throughout.  He got me invested in Marty, even if I was never really on his side.

What I think makes "Buzzard" especially compelling is the way that it captures such a captures a piece of the current zeitgeist and the plight of a generation of young Americans so well.  Marty's going to be very familiar to a lot of Millennial twenty-somethings stuck in the economic limbo of dead-end temp jobs, still reliant on their parents, and zoning out on video games.  A bleakly hostile Detroit serves as the backdrop for the later parts of the film, and there are jabs at the absurdities and cruelties of corporate culture everywhere.  And you have to wonder, would someone as screwed up as Marty be possible if his circumstances weren't equally as twisted?

Marty, for all his bravado, isn't very smart.  "Buzzard," however, is a lot more insightful than it looks at first glance.

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