Buzzard (2014)

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Directed by Joel Potrykus

Buzzard is described as Office Space on crack, and yeah, that sounds about right.  The difference though is that Peter, the American hero of Office Space, is deeply content with his life and simply doesn’t care about anything.  He only begins stealing from the company because there is some hatred towards the corporation and a sprinkle of compassion for his recently laid off coworkers.  In Buzzard, our hero, Martin Jackitansky is just trying to survive.  Sure he might have other means of survival, but he’s isolated, pissed off probably constantly, and his version of company theft is just the next step in a series of petty scams.  This isn’t any kind of new development for his character, rather he was well on this path from the start.

So in many ways Office Space is about the beginning of a character’s new perspective on life, and Buzzard is about the walls closing on on Martin’s existing way of life.

We meet Martin (Joshua Burge) as he closes his checking account and then promptly opens up a new one, hoping to take advantage of the $50 giveaway for new accounts.  The bank employee, who we never see, is flabbergasted by Martin’s scheme.  It turns out Martin is a temp at the same bank (though a different branch), and he doesn’t really care about his job or the bank.  The employee, out of ideas, asks Martin if he’s simply trying to game the system, and Martin smiles a little when he says “yes.”  He’s proud of the loophole he believes himself to have spotted in the system, and it’s immediately clear that he’s been doing things like this for a long time.

We glimpse a few of these other scams in his day to day life.  He takes office supplies from his job and returns them without a receipt for money.  He calls the company that makes his hot pockets and complains about the quality, getting new ones for free.  There are probably a few more petty scams, but they’re all put on hold when discovers a new pet project.  Martin’s boss asks him to return a few dozen checks to their rightful owners who may have changed addresses.  Martin tries to call them up, but a bunch of them seem to hang up on him almost instantly.  He then realizes he can sign the checks over to himself, possibly making as much as $2,000 in the process.  For a man with $250 in his bank account, this is a welcome sum.

Martin’s friend and coworker Derek (Joel Potrykus) loves his job at the bank, and he ridicules Martin’s check-stealing plan from the start, proudly declaring that Martin will never get away with it.

When Martin’s plan begins to sour, after he realizes his boss can tell who cashed the checks, he becomes paranoid and goes into hiding, refusing to return to his apartment.  Martin’s version of hiding, however, is making Derek let him stay in his father’s basement, the house in which Derek also stays.  In the second act, with Martin’s campout in the 1990s teenage dream of a basement, he and Derek act as though they’re on an indefinite hiatus from life.  Derek goes to work during the day, but when he returns home they play games, make fun of each other, eat gas station food, drink Mountain Dew and play fight with a plastic lightsaber and Martin’s self-made Freddy Krueger glove, with a blade for each finger.

Martin pretends to be sick while he stays away from work.  Of the few dozen checks he was given, which he told his boss he mailed out successfully, he has only cashed a few.  That was enough to spook him, but he doesn’t dare return the remaining checks for fear of admitting his guilt.  Instead he just waits, going nowhere.  When he goes out to a gas station and gets cheated out of five dollars (which he badly needs), Martin gets spooked and a little more pissed off and leaves the basement behind.  He goes on the run, living like a vagrant and cashing the remaining checks.  Martin sleeps in a variety of hotels and bus stations, and you can feel his spree coming to an end at any moment.  It’s in this part of the film that Martin reminded me of Nightcrawler‘s Louis Bloom, a feral character who lives at night, like a predator in plain sight.

In one scene, Martin is able to cash $200 in checks, and he spends all the money on a hotel room and a plate of spaghetti which he messily devours.  The camera lingers on him for almost the entire meal, probably around five minutes and feeling like 30.  This shot really seems to depict how stuck in his own world Martin is, causing a mess but not caring.

The next night he spends $28 on a cheap motel and copies the key illegally so he can sneak back in for free the next night.  When the manager catches him, Martin threatens him with his knife-adorned glove and escapes.  Not long after, while trying to cash a few more checks, Martin is detained by the bank manager who tells him that having that many checks not in his own name is a huge red flag, and he has alerted the authorities.  Martin uses his glove to brutally slash the manager, cutting him across the face and inflicting a wound deep enough to possibly be fatal.

Martin runs away before the police arrive, and he calls Derek who lets him know that their boss was fired for the missing checks.  Martin takes this to mean that he’s home free.  He puts on his headphones, blasting death metal, and sprints down the sidewalk with glee.

The movie doesn’t just yet end, however.  Martin stops in front of a storefront window with several monitors, all showing the security camera footage and, in this case, Martin.  While he stands motionless, one of the depictions of Martin walks off camera, something that is impossible given his placement.  He looks around curiously, then he walks away too.  The camera holds a little longer as Martin walks back across the screen in one of the small monitors.

So whether or not he actually gets away, Martin is still stuck in his paranoid cycle.  Throughout the film he’s constantly trying to evade detection, and at the same time he seems ignorant of anything outside of himself.  Whether it’s when he’s eating spaghetti, paying video games or asleep in the movie theater, Martin is unable to see outside of himself.  The final shot of the film forces him to examine who he is, and he might not like what he sees.

This film, made on an incredibly tight budget with a small crew, is made very efficiently with what seems like as little cutting as possible.  The camera holds on its subject for as long as it can before it must cut away.  Really, this film would be one long take if that was feasible.

These long shots, often just a single shot per scene, requires more rehearsal but less time spent filming coverage (shot, reverse-shot, etc.).  Instead director Joel Potrykus picks a spot, sets up his camera and lets the action role.  In many of these long takes early in the film, the camera rests on Martin’s face.  This is the audience’s moment of discovery.  We’re trying to figure out what Martin is up to, and once we learn his nature and his affinity for smalltime scams, we no longer have anything to learn about him.  As the story moves on, the camera spends more time on the people he interacts with, whether that’s the bank manager, the doctor who realizes he lied about a workplace injury or the gas station attendant who cheats him out of five dollars.  In these moments we see how other people approach him as they range from suspicion to fury.

As Martin’s plan starts to fall apart he becomes a little more desperate.  The mystery of his character returns as we wonder if he realizes how close to the edge he is.  There have been plenty of films about characters flying too close to the dun and burning out, so we expect his spree to come crashing to an end.  The question is whether he expects it.

When the bank manager confronts Martin, detaining him like a caged animal, the camera spends equal time on each of them, in close ups.  We see the manager’s smug expression as he is almost excited to catch a thief, and then we see Martin’s increasingly panicked reactions, realizing everything is truly falling apart.

The film ends with Martin’s excited smile, but then it finishes with a series of shots of him all contained in a single frame.  This final shot allows not only the audience to look at Martin, but it allows him to look at himself.  He examines the details of his face just like we have been this entire time.  It’s like he’s flipped the magnifying glass around on himself.  Instead of searching for loopholes in the system, he’s looking at the contours of his own face and the image he presents to the world.  Maybe he realizes that his long hair, ripped sweatshirt and “demons” black t-shirt aren’t conducive to fooling anyone.  He looks like a red flag.

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Maybe Martin sees what we’ve been seeing this entire time, a petty criminal with a violent streak who has lied his way out of any meaningful relationships.  He’s ruthless towards Derek, his only friend, and he has never once said anything truthful over the phone towards his mother.  It’s like he started to believe his own lies, convinced that he’s doing just fine in life, but now he finally sees how far into his own fictional world he has descended.  It’s important that he looks up at himself in this shot, both putting his “accomplishment” on a pedestal but also looking up from the hole he’s fallen into.  When we break from reality, and he walks away from the camera in one of the televisions, it’s like he’s turned his back on himself, or at least part of himself.  It’s up to you to decide if he’s rejecting what his life has become or if he’s simply refusing to analyze his own actions, meaning he might simply repeat them in the future.

 

Martin’s most repeated line is “beautiful,” which he often says while trying to organize one of his scams.  It’s simply a reflex, something he says when things go his way, reinforcing his view of the world and the longterm viability of his way of life.  So each time he says “beautiful,” he’s really just one step further away from reality and admitting he needs help.

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