Debt never dies.
Leave it to an actual Buffalonian to write a screenplay set in the city without one mention or frame of snow. Only they know what else the Queen City has to offer above cheap jokes about blizzards and cold because they’ve grown up amongst the eccentric characters found in every corner bar or Bills game that can hate the person next to them despite still supplying a high-five if a touchdown is scored. So when Brian Sacca mocks the chicken wing feuds (Anchor Bar or Duffs?), fandom, and high number of Polish names without a vowel, you can tell he does it with love. Because while the sheer zaniness will make outsiders smile, that knowing mirror turned upon those who’ve lived it immortalizes a piece of their home.
In the context of Buffaloed—directed by Tanya Wexler after jokingly threatening Sacca with arson if he chose someone else—this world is the Dahls’ home. Widowed with two young children years ago, Kathy (Judy Greer) did her best to stay afloat while debt collectors phoned trying to recoup the money her late husband gambled away. Seeing that struggle and knowing what it meant to eat ten-cent wings every night because a casserole was too expensive to make, Peg (Zoey Deutch) decided very early that she’d work hard and cheat where she could to get into an Ivy League college and escape the fate too many local women she knew suffered. When her acceptance letter arrived with its tuition plan, however, she realized the hustle would never end.
One con leads to another before Peg earns forty days in jail to end that dream real quick. Suddenly she finds herself in debt too with lawyer bills and lawsuits stemming from her crime piling up. Ever the optimist with a new scheme to match whatever troublesome situation she inevitably creates for herself, this problem brings with it an opportunity. After mere minutes on the phone with a chatty collector explaining the game enough for Peg to realize a more effective way of rigging it—a hustler is nothing if not a salesperson—she finds herself working for the self-proclaimed king of the industry (Jai Courtney‘s Wizz), learns back-end details, and covertly opens her own firm as one more cutthroat entity in an ecosystem run like the mob.
She’s going to do it legit, though. Where Wizz and company bask in the unregulated world of coercion, redoes, and violence, Peg compiles a crew of outside-the-box thinkers whose gift for disarming gab will sell debtors “relief” from the burden of their dues. Her maybe boyfriend (Jermaine Fowler‘s assistant district attorney Graham) tries explaining how everyone starts out with idyllic dreams of staying lawful before something pushes them over it (he’s investigating Wizz et al.), but she won’t listen. And as the pressure and threats from her former boss escalates into a battle of attrition devoid of victors, Peg falls prey and becomes victim to how easy it is to slip. One problem leads to another until even she can’t believe her usual catchphrase, “I’ll make things right.”
Inspired by the real-life fact that Buffalo collection agencies don’t mess around when it comes to moving “paper”—a settlement this past July ordered one to pay sixty million dollars in restitution for illegal practices—Sacca has fun turning it into a game with stakes proving it’s anything but. Wexler then lends an entertainingly fast-paced visual style to go along with Deutch’s pedal-to-the-floor performance as a woman who can’t stop without fear of losing what little she does have. Peg is a character that means well even as she exploits those she loves (mom, Noah Reid as her brother JJ, Graham, etc.) to pursue retribution all while deluding herself with thoughts that she’s better than the slimeballs leeching a senile old woman for thousands of dollars every month.
Is she, though? As soon as Peg decides to stoop to Wizz’s level, it’s impossible to stop the transition from altruism to sanctimony. Her actions have consequences and the choice between falling further into immorality or turning rat erases the third option of hustling forth an escape hatch—especially with employees and family to worry about. It was one thing to ruin her own life scalping fake Bills tickets to pay tuition. Risking the lives of those who’ve put their trust in her to rise above the noise and keep them out of jail is another. That rush of adrenaline knowing she can dole out pain as good as the next guy, however, is a powerful drug to combat. Peg epitomizes Buffalo’s never-surrender underdog attitude to a fault.
This is the reason we stand in her corner despite her missteps. She’s punching up, a tiny Goliath against a corrupt industry’s bigger Goliath. Peg doesn’t have to be David to earn our respect or allegiance as long as she feels remorse when things get out of hand. Knocking Wizz down is great, but it’s easy to forget that doing so doesn’t actually help the poor souls whose debt is still being collected. Opportunism always has its victims, but saying those little guys caught in the middle have no one to blame but themselves for accruing their debt in the first place only makes you part of the problem (and hypocritical). Things are never so black and white. Gaming a corrupt system doesn’t exclude you from its corruption.
That’s the lesson Peg will have to learn and she’s lucky to have compassionate and forgiving people around her to help teach it like Kathy, JJ, and Graham. She has the brains and skills to train folks stuck in prison or minimum wage jobs to be their best selves and make a fortune within a career built to do exactly that, but they’re the ones who stop her from becoming just another Wizz by knowing the potential she has to be better. That doesn’t mean Peg won’t ultimately come out the other end jaded and cutthroat anyway. But at least she’ll have a choice. She can stand-up to misogynists, refuse to settle down, and be a success without losing her humanity. Peg doesn’t have to fight back alone.