There seems to be something of the dark arts in the making of most slacker films: scripts contain plain speech and heartfelt profanity, characters are often shown with their guards down, mean and misanthropic like they're carrying on behind closed doors, and there's a whiff of unasked-for intimacy that you might just put up with in your partner. Most films need some darkness; a slacker film without it would be a sketch show, or a comedy monologue. Buzzard is a black-hearted film directed by Michigan-born Joel Potrykus and starring Joshua Burge. It's part of a loose trilogy, which began with 2010's Coyote and was followed by 2012's Ape. (Ape is a film about a troubled young comedian: the laughter in the dark which follows him around isn't exactly what he is looking for.) Buzzard's similar low-budget status, pared-down script and low-key stylings steer it clear of any showboating or smart-arsery. This way, we can get on with enjoying an unusual, incredible film.
Joshua Burge plays Marty Jackitansky, a frustrated, under-employed young man who is a temp worker in a mortgage office. He lives for minor fraud - he steals money from the clients of his company - and mischief. He's argumentative, with something to prove - the film's poster says "He'd stand up to the man if he wasn't too f**king lazy to get off the couch." The poster also features the striking Freddy Krueger like game-console glove Marty fashions throughout Buzzard, with its sharp metal talons: it comes in handy for impressing his one friend, Joel Potrykus's own turn as Derek, and for striking out physically in heated rows.
Marty moves into Derek's: the square, misguided Derek calls the basement "the Party Zone", and this becomes Marty's lair. You get the impression that Derek doesn't play host in his father's home much, as he dances around beside his disco light. Marty is spectacularly rude to Derek and then moves out. The film then follows his complicated, winding path in and out of both ends of money-based scams, hotels of varying price and quality, and all flavours of trouble. It struck me about three quarters of the way through Buzzard that there was something cinematically unusual going on: there's no love interest for Marty, in keeping with his way of navigating the world in his selfish, defiant, younger-than-his-years fashion. Another person would just get in the way.
It's a bit complicated, though. Marty isn't all bad: there are a couple of scenes in which he talks to his mother on the phone and he lies to her about how well he's doing, in his job, in life. You get the impression that it's not completely self-aggrandising, and that he really cares what his family thinks. Many films like this, where the main character is a bit of a shady one, catch at the heart because you end up liking the character, in a complex sort of way. It's impossible not to cheer Marty on, at least to some extent: Burge's expressive, cartoonishly handsome face gets you on side immediately - he would have made a great silent movie actor. The first scene helps, too - Marty gets one over on a holier-than-thou bank clerk, which surely acts as an immediate bit of cinematic therapy for most of us. Joel Potrykus's treatment of his main character in Buzzard is generous: the long takes let Marty breathe, and come across naturally. There's a scene in the first, fancy hotel that Marty stays in in which he is eating a huge plate of spaghetti. It gets on his face and all over the pale, plush hotel dressing-gown. It's real behind-closed-doors stuff, and there is a real sense of physical proximity, of being in the same room. With no over-moneyed, flashy stylings, there is room for stillness and intimacy: you can practically smell Marty's Lynx.
Certain things appear in Buzzard with fuzzy, dream-like symbolism: devil masks, which Marty wears while at the cinema and when he's freaking out to heavy metal music, and the music itself, which blasts out at intervals and surprises us. These things feel like totems, and somehow bind the movie to something darker and higher than itself; the best horror films do this too, sometimes making us feel that they have a direct dial line to hell.
Buzzard is a film which seems right for our times, without jumping on any bandwagons. It has garnered praise at Locarno Film Festival and SXSW, and the buzz is spreading. There are comparisons to be made with Office Space: both are ace movies, and there are parallels between the two characters who sicken of the American office life and feel both the anxiety and Zen of leaving, and who engage in fraud. But Buzzard feels closer in spirit to, say, Clerks, with a similar brittle feel, rather than Office Space's elasticity and bounce.
Buzzard is one of those films in which everything aligns brilliantly. It lacks everything that bad, schmaltzy cinema tends to have: conversations in which everything, unrealistically, contributes to the big picture, and loose ends of plot which always tie up. There is the ghost of a buddy movie, too, in the complex feelings between Derek and Marty. The sweet smell of youth is here: Marty Jackitansky may be an unlikely boy of summer, but he does have the swagger, anxiety and promise of the first half of life. Part of you is cheering him on, wishing you could speak to your boss like that, and secretly hoping there are people out there doing what he does, so you don't have to. There's not an ounce of fat in the whole movie. Joel Potrykus described the film as "an art film, disguised as a slacker black comedy". Perhaps inadvertently, then, Buzzard proves that the slacker genre is at its most irresistible when it is stripped down to its bare bones, and the bones are burnt and blackened.