A man and dog run alongside a river in the snow. It’s winter and they’re moving briskly through a cold night, soul music blaring. He stops for a pastry at a local shop, cutting the music on his mobile device, the song on the soundtrack proving diegetic. The runner doesn’t carry cash when he runs, so he has to ask the shop owner, who’s clearly familiar with him, to front the pastry. He does, begrudgingly, the entire scene unfolding in one lugubrious zoom.
So begins Noah Buschel’s “Glass Chin,” one of the strongest films ever to grace the international narrative competition at the Tribeca Film Festival — a boxing picture without a single fight, a thriller with a murder takes place off screen, a slow burn modern neo-noir with dialogue as memorable as Mamet’s that wears the cadences and uninflected, symmetrical compositions of an Ozu picture effortlessly, mixing these influences in a way that seems all its own.
In its tale of small time crime and working class desperation, Bud “The Saint” Gordon (Corey Stoll), a once-hallowed prospect who was felled in a surprise one-punch knockout during his shot at stardom, is in hawk to a shady, smooth talking restaurateur named J.J. (a chillingly effective Billy Crudup), a Pittsburgh ex-pat with dandy stylings and a quick wit that can’t conceal the fact that he’s clearly some kind of sociopath.
An investor in Bud’s failed New Jersey restaurant start up, J.J. hires the financially pinched Gordon, who has recently taken a job helping his old mentor Lou (John Douglas Thompson) train a promising young fighter, Kidd Sunshine (Malcolm Xavier), J.J. insists that Bud accompany his associate Roberto (an outstanding Yul Vazquez), a glam rock obsessed, mascara wearing mob strong man, on “runs” and “deliveries” to pick up extra cash. It’s not long after the pair of enforcers visit a coke fiend elementary school teacher (Michael Chernus) that Bud finds himself in a supermarket aisle spying a newspaper which informs him that the man whose apartment he’s been documented visiting by various video cameras has turned up dead. Framed for the murder by J.J., who wants him to have Sunshine throw his potentially star-making upcoming fight at Madison Square Garden, Bud is caught in an untenable moral quandary.
Bud ultimately betrays both his girlfriend Ellen (Marin Ireland), whom he fools around on with a bartender in J.J.’s employ (Kelly Lunch), and the old school gym rat of a trainer who has generously given him a shot a re-entering the boxing game but isn’t a savvy enough promoter to deliver his fighters to the big time.
And what does “big time” mean? Early in the film, he tells Bud he’s not allowed HBO to come to the Red Hook Brooklyn gym to film a behind-the-scenes feature on Sunshine’s training sessions. “Oh, The fight is what’s consequential? HBO isn’t consequential, it’s the just the only game in town,” Gordon sardonically intones. “‘Boardwalk Empire,’ that’s not consequential. No. ‘Girls’ isn’t consequential.”
It isn’t the only subtle swipe that Buschel takes at Lena Dunham, his (and my own) ex-Hammer to Nail label mate. Much of the film is suffused with whip smart allusion to the growing Obama-era sense that the winners of the current economic order are destine to lord over those who have to gravel for the scraps. “Make no mistake, people like us, we’re made to go to war as entertainment for the rich,” intones Roberto to the man he’s a party to framing for a murder he himself committed.
Embodying a fragile, failed athlete caught up in a situation that he seems ill prepared for from very early on, Stoll gamely makes us care for this essentially decent man who can’t quite come to grips with the wasted potential of his youth. By showcasing a once-lauded prize fighter stuck in the afterglow, the movie bravely tests our sympathy for Gordon by making him a casual womanizer whose relationship with Ireland’s Eleen seems argumentative but mutually vital, who admits in a moment of weakness and fear that he also took a lucrative intentional dive in the fight that changed everything.
A huge leap aethetically from the directors’ interesting and flawed 2008 Michael Shannon vehicle “The Missing Person” and last year’s well-received but underseen agoraphobia dramedy “Sparrow’s Dance,” “Glass Chin” feels more fully realized conceptually than the broad majority of low budget American indies. Cinematographer Ryan Samul’s smooth HD lensing uses the generally undesirable wide depth of field the format offers to his advantage and editor Jennifer Ruff’s finds elegant transitions between Buschel at almost every turn. A back-to-the-basics throwback that nonetheless contains more than its fair share of bravura directorial choices and performative turns, “Glass Chin” confirms Buschel to be among the most interesting voices lurking in the margins of American cinema.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Following its Tribeca premiere, the film should enjoy solid festival play and limited theatrical release with the potential to gather some momentum on VOD.