Some of the best comedies are also cultural horror pieces. They focus in on one absurd aspect of how we live, exploiting it for laughs while also making us recoil at the truth of it. This is the case with “Buffaloed”, where we follow a woman named Peg who’s hell-bent on taking hold of the Buffalo debt collection industry.
That may seem small potatoes, but Buffalo, New York, is one of the debt collecting capitals of the U.S. It houses a number of agencies that buy debt for pennies on the dollar, and then try to collect as much of it as possible. Often, they’ll collect more than they’re owed. They’ll make threats in order to collect. They’ll lie about the law and break it themselves. They’ll take advantage of older people who might not remember the debt’s already been settled.
Why would following someone who idolizes this industry be interesting or amusing? Peg is someone who’s idealistic about the cult of sales on which debt collection is based. She’ll willingly trade being able to make it day-to-day for a risky scam that has an outside shot of making her rich. She’s emblematic of a philosophy about money that plunges people into debt in the first place, a philosophy that tells us to invest rather than save, to hoard rather than share, to look out for ourselves rather than our communities.
There can be a certain fascination to watching bad guys who are so exceptionally precise at their manipulation that they run circles around the good guys. The prototype for this is Iago in “Othello”. The concept survives to this day in shows like “House of Cards” and its U.S. remake, or movies like “There Will Be Blood”. That plays differently after four years of Trump, though. Perhaps those we have to fear aren’t the cinematic genius masterminds, but the desperate hustlers who whip their followers into a fanatical frenzy.
Zoey Deutch’s Peg is no Iago. She’s desperate to escape her social class, to escape debt. She has schemes on schemes. She also has the gift of convincing herself, and her family and employees, and perhaps even us as the audience that she wants to do it the right way. She wants to reform the debt collection industry. She wants to make it work for the industry and for those in debt. We know that’s not possible, but if anyone can take a run at it, maybe it’s her – even as she erodes what is and isn’t legitimate.
She’s just good enough at it to ride the line between success and prison. She has just enough of a gift to shift in and out of each. There’s no middle ground for her. She grew up in a house with debt collectors breathing down her mother’s neck. Her mother (Judy Greer in a very overlooked role) runs a struggling, off-the-books business. Peg looks down on her for that, while having endless, misguided faith in the memory of a scam-artist father who passed away and passed his debts onto all the rest.
How is any of this funny, let alone one of the best comedies of the year? Brian Sacca’s screenplay and Tanya Wexler’s direction eviscerate one of the most predatory and loosely regulated industries in the country. Different debt collection agencies go to war like wannabe mafias over who’s buying what debt, at what cost. They raid, threaten, and SWAT each other. The movie educates about the industry even while building comedy off how pathetic and desperate it all is.
Peg herself might be a sociopath. Or she might be a good, caring person who has to act the part of sociopath to stand up against threats. Or she might be a sociopath who acts the part of good, caring person because it keeps her enablers where she needs them. She hires outsiders because she believes in them, identifies with them…or because she knows she can control them more easily. She doesn’t want to betray her lawyer boyfriend because she cares about him…or because she knows he’s a useful resource for her. We never know which, and Deutch’s performance balances on this line perfectly. We’re scared for her, worried for her, and rooting for her while we also legitimately distrust her. That Deutch can sell us on all of the above at once offers us a deceptively complex comedic performance – something that becomes more layered because it is so comedic in nature.
That’s more real and worrisome than an Iago. There will always be someone sensible who resists an Iago. His shortcoming is that he never believed his own lies – they were logical lies, not emotional ones. A Peg, though? She’s an icon. Who needs logic when emotion overrides it? Even as a viewer, I can say I empathize with her and may even believe in her. I want her to succeed because her panic, desperation, resolve, determination – they’re all so identifiable, even when her success is built on eroding the very lines of legitimacy she tells everyone she’s trying to reinforce.
Iago speaks to the audience and we know he’s evil. We follow him because his actions are happening outside of us, on a stage, or the page, or in a movie. We’re not necessarily legitimizing them by wanting to know what happens. Peg speaks to us and we’re confused about who she is even in that moment, but she sure seems to believe it so why wouldn’t we give her a chance? On some level, that legitimization is happening inside of us as the viewer. There’s a larger barrier to enabling Iago or the logical villains like him. There’s almost none to enabling villainy from someone you actually like and can identify with. “Buffaloed” can read us, and then take advantage of it while calling it out and making it plain as day to us.
It clarifies how this identification plays into the cult of sales, including debt collection, by making us buy into a movie that is using the same strategies to claim our emotional investment. Its comedy renders us empathetic, and its absurdity makes it both funnier and more horrific. It’s a rare film that can call out exactly how it’s getting you to emotionally invest in a toxic character, and in so doing further convince you to do exactly that. It convinces you to set aside your better judgment because this is someone you believe in and want to see succeed despite common sense and logic. It’s a movie that’s emblematic of the current culture of the United States.
“Buffaloed” is a clever comedy that kept me laughing across a very efficient hour and a half. It’s an utterly brilliant character study that resonates far longer than that – except I don’t know if the character it’s studying most is Peg, or me as the viewer.
Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.
1. Does “Buffaloed” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Zoey Deutch plays Peg. Judy Greer plays her mother, Kathy. Lusia Strus plays Frances, Lorrie Odom plays Backer, Paulyne Wei plays Jin, Barbara Gordon plays Mrs. Cooney, and Jayne Eastwood plays Rhonda. Kate Moyer plays Peg as a child. There are a few other brief speaking roles.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. A lot of the conversation revolves around business decisions – debt collection, rent, sales strategies, ethics, theft. Peg’s conversations with her mother often revolve around her future, her dreams, and her mistakes. These include discussions of men – how she impacts her brother, her belief in her late father, her sort-of-boyfriend, but are usually more broadly around Peg’s life.
Some of the business conversation treads into talking about men because all of her competition in debt collection is run by men, but it usually leans more toward Frances and Backer talking to Peg about her business.
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