Who’s Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge), the title character of Joel Potrykus’s Buzzard? His phone calls to his mother and the clumsy lies he tells her about how well he’s doing (“I don’t ever act like that anymore. I’m happy now. Everyone really likes me”) make him sound like a mixed-up kid, while his sardonic contempt for rules seems comically heroic at first: As he searches for new ways to rip off the soul-sucking bank where he temps for $9.50 an hour, this darkly funny film feels like a downscale variation on Office Space—one whose hero doesn’t think big enough to come up with a way to make hundreds of thousands (he just skims off $20 here or $50 there).
This is a study of a man who’s hard to like, harder to dismiss, and impossible to pigeonhole. Frequent close-ups of Burge’s cartoonishly handsome and expressive mug (big, wide-apart eyes, even bigger mouth and oversized nose set in a long, narrow face) encourage one to identify with Marty even as his outsize sense of embittered entitlement makes it hard to warm up to him. The only time the audience sees him happy, in a scene drawn out so long that easy laughter gives way to uncomfortable silence, he’s cramming spaghetti and meatballs into his Joker-sized mouth while watching TV in a hotel room, the food spilling onto his hotel bathrobe. This is the life, as far as Marty is concerned—and he only has enough cash to pay for one night of it.
But Marty doesn’t rip off just the corporations he claims to hate; he mistreats people too, including his dweeby co-worker, Derek (Potrykus), who’s so desperate to be Marty’s friend that he’ll put up with any amount of abuse. Meanwhile, Marty keeps perfecting the Freddie Krueger-like glove he carries around in his backpack. And, to paraphrase that famous saying about a gun, you can’t show a man with a Freddie Krueger glove in a movie unless he winds up using it.
This is the last entry in Potrukus’s “animal trilogy,” all of which are set mostly in his native Grand Rapids, Michigan. The settings tell a deadpan story of their own about middle-class life in middle America, from the drab cubicles of Marty’s bank to his defeated-looking apartment complex. Marty rushes through this world, unhappy and resentful, until one of his small-time scams looks as if it is about to be discovered. He panics, going underground—literally, crashing in Derek’s basement (or, as Derek calls it, The Party Zone). Potrykus and Burge maintain that emotionally fraught yet comic tone throughout, the latter radiating intensity and barely suppressed anger even when the situations are absurd, such as Marty making a sandwich of corn chips between two frozen pizzas, or Derek and Marty challenging each other to a fight in the basement, the former’sStar Wars light saber versus the latter’s clawed glove.
Like the bird of the title, Marty preys on smaller beasts and isn’t above eating carrion (he dumpster-dives for a discarded Egg McMuffin at a McDonald’s, trading it in for a fresh one with the help of a gullible cashier). But he seems as shocked as the man he attacks when he finally manages to unleash the violence he’s been fantasizing about, and he’s hardly the only person in his world who’s out for whatever he can get, everyone else be damned. When Marty shops for the chips that are his major food group, a convenience store cashier runs a scam on him, stealing his last few dollars. And the bank where Marty works, like so many employers these days, classifies him as an apparently permanent temp so it can pay the just-above-subsistence wage it would pay an employee but sidestep the benefits.
The last scene tracks Marty as he runs at full tilt. He’s exultant at having escaped the scene of his crime, but as the camera holds steady on his pumping legs and arms, nothing but the background changing, a couple of things are disturbingly clear: This buzzard isn’t going anywhere, and he’s taking down any mice in his path.