The best visual metaphor for the main character of Buzzard is already taken by the movie’s title.
Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge) is a twentysomething scavenger, a mangy office temp who ekes out an existence by pulling little scams that result in the equivalent of carrion. (One running con is to regularly call the complaint line for his favorite frozen pizza and talk his way into free coupons.) At the bank where he temps, he regularly over-orders office supplies, only to return them later for cash. One day, he sees a bigger opportunity. Given a bunch of unclaimed checks and told to contact their intended recipients, Marty concocts a plan to sign them over to himself, a harebrained scheme that inevitably begins to unravel.
Written and directed by Joel Potrykus, Buzzard is one of those laser-sharp character portraits with such an incisive bead on its central figure that you sit, transfixed, by his every move. Which is saying something, because this is also a film that lets the camera rest on Marty for minutes on end as he messily eats a plate of spaghetti, huge glops of noodles falling out of his mouth. (The gluttonous devouring of horribly unhealthy food is a recurring motif.)
Marty is a man apart, an antisocial irritant, a pecking bird.
So no, Marty isn’t likeable. This is no charming, smooth-talking con man. Yet the mercilessness of Burge’s performance is one of the main reasons the character remains captivating. Aggressively bug-eyed, Marty has an unsettling antagonism. In one early scene – also an extended medium shot that simply holds on Marty – he’s closing a checking account and immediately opening a new one, just to get the $50 incentive payment. When the teller shakes his head and says, “This is a waste of my time,” Marty responds with self-righteous anger. In his mind, it’s the teller’s fault that the bank is susceptible to his scam. Tellingly, we never see the teller’s face in the scene. In many of the movie’s conversations, only one of the two people talking is in the frame, and it’s usually Marty. The technique emphasizes him as a man apart, an antisocial irritant, a pecking bird.
Potrykus brings a delicate tone to Buzzard, one that balances humor and danger in a way that generates a constant atmosphere of unease. Perhaps the most accomplished example of this is a scene midway through, in which Marty and a friend from the office (played by Potrykus) engage in a faux duel in the friend’s “party room” (his father’s basement). Derek, the friend, is armed with a toy lightsaber, while Marty is wearing a video-game Power Glove he’s fashioned with finger blades a la A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s silly and a bit sad (one of the many instances of these two behaving like 13-year-olds), but given the way Marty routinely bullies Derek, it also carries the threat of real violence.
It becomes a bit obvious as Buzzard goes on that the movie is building toward something like that, which gives its final 15 minutes an air of deflating inevitability. Yet Potrykus and Burge do manage to sneak some layering into these final scenes, in which we get hints that Marty may be more than a series of anti-social poses and instead a sufferer of real mental illness. In fact, in its clever final shot, Buzzard may even take us somewhere we’ve been warily circling for much of the film: right inside Marty’s messed-up head.