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Since Frownland (2007), director Ronald Bronstein’s divisive and darkly comic character study of a New York door-to-door salesman who alienates everyone he encounters, the best American independent films have tended to revolve around protagonists whose surly demeanor gets them relegated to the margins of society. Drew Tobia’s See You Next Tuesday (2013) deals with an impoverished, pregnant store clerk, the Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What (2014) with destitute heroin addicts, and in both cases their revolting character traits are tempered by the wretched hands they’ve been dealt. These unsavory antiheroes aren’t exactly pleasant to be around, but their dire circumstances win them some sympathy, revealing their outlandish, destructive, and occasionally dangerous behaviors as by-products of an unfair system.
Enter Buzzard, the latest film by Michigan native Joel Potrykus and the final installment of his “animal trilogy” (which includes the 2012 feature Ape and the 2010 short Coyote). Buzzard is an endearingly strange, pitch-black comedy of errors, a singular vision of the working poor’s barbaric fringes. The remarkable Joshua Burge—lead actor in both Ape and Coyote—stars as bug-eyed, greasy-haired Marty, a dispirited, neo-Dickensian temporary office worker idly stationed at a nondescript mortgage company. At home in his dingy apartment, he exploits company refund policies and corporate giveaways for cash and prizes, in part to make ends meet but also for the joy of fucking with the system, any system. Marty’s small-time scams are a hoot, but when one ill-planned ruse lands him in deep trouble (or so he thinks, paranoia being one of the film’s essential elements), he flees to Detroit in desperation and the laughs subside.
Marty is reprehensible, but Burge roots his alarming behavior in relatable fears. Goofing around with a homemade glove of blades, a la Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Marty slices his hand open; just another blue-collar millennial without health insurance, he fakes a work accident to receive workers’ comp. Life’s basic comforts elude him, forcing him to rely on his wits; he’s the poster boy for the scavenger class, backed into a corner and dangerously short of options. His anxiety is reflected in Potrykus’s camerawork, which often recalls the intensity and immediacy of guerrilla filmmaking. But behind the amateurish aesthetic lies a director with high-art sensibilities who uses Buñuelian surrealism to undercut the film’s verisimilitude. Like Potrykus, Burge shows great daring, his performance a high-wire act of ballistic anomie and genuine empathy; we may find Marty repugnant, but only because we fear ending up like him, a disillusioned hellion desperate for a way out.