Credit: Tribeca Film Festival
by Chris Cassingham Featured Film

Vulcanizadora — Joel Potrykus [Tribeca ’24 Review]

June 12, 2024

Joel Potrykus offered viewers a kind of hell on earth in 2014 when he released Buzzard, a crusty cumrag of a movie about the drudgery and paranoia of contemporary lower class life. It’s utterly brilliant, with a clear-eyed point of view that never looks down on its abjectly miserable protagonists — Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge), a temp worker at a mortgage company who pulls small-time, seemingly innocuous scams for extra money, and his friend Derek (Potrykus) — while also never shying away from sincerely investigating their desperate motivations. In many ways it’s a very funny film, and has a brilliant comic cadence in its story and characterizations. But a sad refrain accompanies its comedy.

Potrykus’ latest film, Vulcanizadora, revisits Buzzard’s central characters ten years later with a new strain of melancholy running through it. Where Buzzard‘s sadness stemmed from an obstinate refusal by its protagonist to truly learn from his mistakes, Vulcanizadora’s is raw, sincere, and genuinely existential. Perhaps this is because Potrykus has, in the years since Buzzard’s release, become a father to a young boy, Solo, who here plays a crucial role in the film as Derek’s son and from whom Derek is on the verge of becoming estranged. Or perhaps it’s simply because time eventually strips away ignorance of life’s true misery. For whatever reason, this sadness has rendered Marty and Derek as open wounds; and instead of finding a way to patch those wounds up, Potrykus has chosen to blow them open even wider.

We rejoin Marty and Derek as they set off on a walk in the woods. Just as in Buzzard, their off-couple dynamic sings beautifully in the loneliness of the Northern Michigan forests. They’re simultaneously childlike (hitting tree trunks with sticks, shooting firecrackers at each other) and childish (lamenting a forgotten set of keys, bickering over directions). The levity of these opening sequences is tinged with a heavy mystery, which Potrykus deftly coaxes out via minimal dialogue, precisely though never fussily composed long takes, and Burge’s blank canvas of a face. All we know as these two men stumble through the woods is that something has happened, and they’re looking for an escape — the ultimate escape.

There’s an inevitability to the film’s major turning point. By the time we reach it, we know pretty much exactly what Marty and Derek are getting ready to do, why they’re doing it, and even — gruesomely — how they’re going to do it. And when Marty eventually returns to Grand Rapids, wallows in the emptiness of his home life (where his father would rather have already seen the last of his son a long time ago), goes to court, and fucks up most of his well-meaning stabs at repentance, the once-tightly wound tension just hangs in the air. It’s not to say these narrative developments are unimportant or perfunctory — they are brilliantly directed, subtly fill in the deliberate gaps of the film’s first half, and offer showcase after showcase of Burge’s gift for making bold choices in expression and temperament feel small and instinctual. But by the end of the film, the most important thing to have “happened” took place 30 minutes ago, and the narrative that follows is secondary.

What’s most essential in Vulcanizadora is the space between things: between Marty and Derek, one man who has nothing left to live for and knows it and another who realizes he does have something he wants to live for; between a man and his son, the threat of loss ever-present; and between actions and consequences, where desperate choices can intervene. It’s inside these spaces where Potrykus clarifies what feels like a decade of searching. His expression of 21st-century misery is no less potent here than in Buzzard, its rage-fuelled primal scream perhaps even more deeply felt because it’s stifled by a symbolic fist in the mouth, lest those with innocent ears hear it.

Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 1.