Film Review: Glass Chin

A former boxer, a respectable crime boss and an unpredictable bagman may sound like the makings of a standard macho thriller. But 'Glass Chin' has the heart of an off-Broadway drama and a deceptively dynamic stillness.
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Writer-director Noah Buschel is a complicated case. On the one hand, he's bitched about how there's too much government intrusion into independent film, complaining hyperbolically that he's required to "have like tofu sauce for legions of extras." Dude, extras make about 50 bucks for 12 hours—neither government nor union should have to tell you to feed them properly, and believe me, they don't want "tofu sauce," which I'm not sure is even a thing. On the other hand, Buschel purportedly was ordained a Zen priest, which seems actually to be a thing and not the same as a Buddhist monk. So, yeah, he's complicated up the yin-yang.

This personal side of the filmmaker is relevant since Glass Chin, his fifth movie, seems his most overtly personal. Tall, bald Corey Stoll, about to hit the spotlight as the bad guy in Ant-Man, as former boxer Bud "The Saint" Gordon seems a stand-in for the tall, bald Buschel. And it's surely no coincidence, given the interest that Bud's Jersey-girl girlfriend Ellen (Marin Ireland) takes in Zen teachings that the hero's name could be short for Buddhist. Whatever the reasoning, Glass Chin is a remarkable little movie with a distinct rhythm and such a startling swirl of nihilistic honor that you want to see where Buschel goes from here.

Like a West-of-Hudson Abel Ferrara, whose silver-blue King of New York color scheme infuses this film's Manhattan, Buschel explores the lies we tell ourselves about being an honorable man in a dishonorable world. The former "Saint" is on the other side of what seemed like a good if not extraordinary boxing career. He'd made enough to invest in a restaurant but that didn't work out, and now he's jobless and living in a small Jersey walkup with his tough, loving girlfriend and emotional sparring partner. He helps his gym-owner friend (John Douglas Thompson) train a promising young welterweight (Malcolm Xavier), but it's a far cry from a career.

So is working for J.J. Cook (the eerie and spectacular Billy Crudup), a rich, smoothly sociopathic mastermind with enough police pull that his reserved parking space at his upscale Greenwich Village restaurant is in front of a fire hydrant. He's an aesthete who humble-brags about the house he designed, which he could showcase in Architectural Digest if he didn't want to keep a lower profile, he says, and the pet snow leopard he claims he has. J.J. does own an art gallery, he does have a limo, and, according to his bagman Roberto (the talented and charismatic Yul Vazquez, whose two episodes of FX's “Louie” are a must-see), J.J. also owns people—from gamblers and cokehead math teachers who owe him money to Roberto himself and, with brilliant manipulation, now Gordon.

Indeed, the mechanics of control is what the movie is really about. The gambler-wants-boxer-to-take-a-dive plot is unquestionably part of that, but the plot isn't the point. Glass Chin is a boxing term, but here it also seems a metaphor about peering within. When Bud does so, when he's honest about himself, he concludes that everything he does is about the need "to be held in high regard again." And like any sort of true introspection, it sets him on an inevitable path of, as in the tale of the scorpion and the frog, being what you are.

What elevates Glass Chin above even this ambitiously thoughtful yet frequently examined topic are the formal techniques Buschel employs here, including several scenes that are static-camera shots where the players go through their emotional motions. The mostly theatre-heavy actors—including Reasons to Be Pretty Tony Award-nominee Ireland and Labyrinth Theater Company co-founder Vazquez—make the most of it, with powerful monologues and dialogues that never become look-at-me showy but feel utterly organic. An especially effective scene in a diner with Bud and Ellen doesn't gin up the drama and also doesn't underplay it.

The characters have off-kilter depth, the plot is as tight as a tightrope, and while the dialogue has some Tarantinoisms—"He's a monk and he's Uma Thurman's father?"—Buschel has written some of the most naturalistic, reasonable-people talk you'll ever hear in a movie. I hope the film is a breakthrough for him, and that his complications give him even more to say.

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