Corey Stoll is tops as a tortured ex-boxer in this well-written update of classic pulp-fiction tropes
Shot on a Red digital camera but clearly intended as a silver-nitrate noir, Noah Buschel’s “Glass Chin” is a throwback to an earlier era. Set in the world of broken dreams, bloody knuckles and stale coffee, Buschel’s script is pure pulp poetry and easily the best thing about a pic that’s not quite flashy enough to transcend its low-budget origins, where staying true to itself means resisting any number of choices that might have made the scrappy project more commercial. Not selling out clearly matters for the indie writer-director, who has assembled this modest tragedy as a testament to personal integrity.
Coming off his tortured role on “House of Cards,” Corey Stoll has the soul, if not quite the physique to play a one-time boxer who never recovered from the bout that ended his career. The character thesp, who got his big break playing Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” may be on an upward trajectory in his professional life, but he’s tops as a blue-collar loser stuck in coulda-been-a-contendah status, having also failed at his follow-up endeavor trying to open a restaurant. Bud Gordon’s no worse off than most of the guys on his block in New Jersey, but the difference is, he had it all in his grasp once, and this feels like rock bottom.
Bud’s steady girl, Ellen (Marin Ireland), isn’t worried about their situation. She doesn’t mind doing the laundry or working a lousy job to help support their blue-collar life, but there’s something in the way Bud is wired — part pride, part caveman chivalry — that insists he can rise above, and “Glass Chin” serves as the chronicle of that redemption, measured in bad decisions, as Bud tries to make amends to Ellen and to himself. At the gym, he’s got an honest thing going, working to train an up-and-comer called Kid Sunshine (Malcolm Xavier). But Bud’s also looking for short cuts, even though he should know better than to get back in business with JJ (Billy Crudup), the too-slick entrepreneur who profited from his last big failure and who now offers him a too-good gig debt collecting with his top goon, Roberto (Yul Vazquez).
It’s unclear whether it’s Roberto or writer-director Buschel who watched too many Scorsese movies back in the day, but the guy’s a Joe Pesci-esque loose cannon, and things go sideways in a hurry. Crudup, on the other hand, hails from the Tarantino school of villainy, playing a cold-blooded shark who waxes eloquent on odd pop-culture topics (“I miss heroin chic,” he muses) while the tension mounts in the room. Buschel has studied the scripts of such testosterone-heavy helmers, but not necessarily their filmmaking style, making curious choices regarding where to place the camera. Instead of framing shot/reverse-shot conversations just off-axis, for example, he instructs the actors to look directly into the lens, as if staring down the audience. At other points, an entire scene will play out from a fixed perspective in a single shot (as when JJ visits Bud at home).
Half the film radiates with color, while the rest — mainly night scenes and anything involving Bud’s shady dealings — takes place in a desaturated moral gray area. Bud has a way of making bad decisions in that space, including an affair (with an ex-Sports Illustrated model played by Kelly Lynch) that reveals a fresh set of flaws in his character. As Bud debates whether to throw Kid Sunshine’s first big fight, Buschel may be mining classic B-movie territory, but between his script and Stoll’s performance, “Glass Chin” finds fresh humanity in a seemingly exhausted genre.