An opening scene can do so much to establish the tone and sensibility of a film. Take, for instance, the first salvo of Buzzard, the new independent film born from 2014’s SXSW festival just now enjoying a theatrical and VOD release in the US. It begins with a medium shot of a man sitting on a bed, bedecked in all black, his face hovering above the frame as he fiendishly wrestles with a Nintendo Power Glove on his right hand. His frustration mounts, made clear by the tension in his arms and the exasperation of his movements, until he seems to give up any hope of succeeding at whatever game he is attempting to play off screen. That is, until he slams the offending peripheral into a wooden crate at his bedside, repeatedly and violently, until the frame freezes and the film’s title appears, Funny Games style in giant red letters across the center of the screen, scrawled in a font that would not look out of place on the cover of a heavy metal album. This is a film that wants attention.
The Power Glove hater in question is Marty (Joshua Burge), a disheveled Dax Shepard working a dead end job he hates and turning simple cons to keep him entertained and ever so slightly above water financially. When he takes the small time con game too far with an embezzlement scheme surrounding a handful of low value checks from his office, he soon finds himself hiding out at his eccentric co-worker’s house (Joel Potrykus, the writer/director of the film) to escape punishment. That is, until Derek’s actions drive him out on his own, using every last dollar to his name to travel to Detroit with not much more than the clothes on his back, a weaponized Power Glove, and some checks that are not his. The streets of Detroit are not a nice place to be, but Marty has nowhere else to go, and a cornered, desperate man is a dangerous man indeed.
Regardless of its somewhat ominous plot summary, Buzzard is just as much comedy as it is drama, a biting look at what current society’s profit-over-all cutthroat corporate mentality can do the the office drones and temps at the bottom of the pecking order. Marty is a con artist, but what is unclear is what came first, the cons or the destitution. Joshua Burge brings a cagey, edgy paranoia to his role, all shifty eyes and jerky movements as he closes a bank account in order to immediately reopen a new one to take advantage of a free $50 promotion, or copies the key of his hotel room so he can come back the next night without paying. He is a cornered animal, straddling the fight or flight line, slowly inching toward fight as the odds pile up against him. He has a breezy, stoner sensibility to him that endears until he fully embraces his dark side. Everyone is a potential mark, every moment another chance to put one over on those around him.
Potrykus’ camera does not shy away from the depravity, settling in for long, uninterrupted takes that focus in on the minutiae of Burge’s performance. The film is perfectly willing to revel in its lead’s pathetic tendencies, concentrating on the process of his various grifts. It is confident in its pacing and characterization, not afraid to spend quite a bit of screen time on something as seemingly banal as Marty sitting in a hotel room eating room service spaghetti. Marty may be one of the few people who would consider this a delicacy, spending his last twenty dollars to revel in the starchy goodness with ecstatic joy (he joins Adele Exarchopoulos from Blue is the Warmest Color in the pantheon of cinema pasta consumers).
What remains fascinating about Buzzard throughout, what allows the humor to succeed in satirizing today’s anti-worker society, is how unique Marty feels on screen. He is a cad, certainly, prone to outbursts of violence and extreme selfishness. He uses everyone and everything around him, praying on their kindness and trust. And yet it all comes from a foundation of survival. The world has beaten him down so much, forced him to compromise himself so often that he has no choice but to internalize the sort of traits that led to his marginalization in the first place. The film does manage to become a tad aimless in its third act when it shifts into something more akin to Falling Down, and while the transition is logical, Potrykus seems a little less comfortable with this aspect of Buzzard. Yet, Burge is the constant, and his unique magnetism on screen perseveres through its laggier moments. It is tough to argue with four fifths of an effective, biting satire, even if Buzzard stumbles ever so slightly on its landing.