Entering his gym, Bud Gordon (Corey Stoll), a one-time professional boxer known as “The Saint”, can’t help but observe how the janitor mops the floor as if “waiting for Life Magazine to show up.” It’s telling of the “Glass Chin’s” aesthetic, one born of an era when Life Magazine was a periodical mecca and boxing was a jewel in the American sports crown. Its characters borrow the postures of so many noir anti-heroes and heavies and gonna-get-mine dames while its narrative cribs whole-heartedly from countless black & white tales of fatalistic pugilists. This overriding familiarity is why Director Noah Buschel (who also wrote the script) imbues his gritty yet sumptuous little movie with all manner of stylistic flourishes, like recurring shots of characters seen head on, looking right at the camera, as if trying to convince us this isn’t simply “The Set Up” in color. Like Buschel and his cinematographic cohort Ryan Samul and the impeccable stable of actors are looking us square in the eye and daring us to tell them this isn’t real.
Perhaps because of its incessant nods to the past, “Glass Chin” deliberately makes clear its setting is Right Now. There are numerous allusions to the everyday, from throwaway references to movies and movie stars (“Wolverine” and Sandra Bullock) to an off-the-wall mentioning of Twitter at a spectacularly delicate moment to an iPod that Bud is gifted to replace his Walkman. All the characters here possess a certain fondness for nostalgia, wallowing in it even as they repeatedly state their future intentions, emblemized by the chief villain, charismatic if malevolent restauranteur J.J. (Billy Crudup), always prattling on about his purple future, whimsically lamenting “I miss heroin chic. Badly.” He claims he can aluminize The Saint’s future yet can’t let go of the past.
Bud wants to get out from under, scrap together enough to provide the life for his girlfriend Ellen (Marin Ireland) he thinks she deserves. He also wants to re-earn his “Saint” stripes. So he both agrees to tutor an up-and-coming welterweight with mellifluous throwback moniker of Kid Sunshine and take jobs as some sort of vaguely defined enforcer for J.J. who promptly pairs Bud with another nostalgist, glam rock exclusivist Roberto (Yul Vasquez), an invigorating character who might saunter around like a cock-of-the-walk put-on but also seems to be the single character entirely accepting of his lot in life. Maybe that acceptance, even if its born of psychopathic murderousness, makes a man as happy as a cartoon bluebird in Cuban heels.
Even as the film winds toward its inevitable conclusion, J.J. eventually, inevitably impressing upon Bud the need to force his tutee to take a fall in his Big Match or else, each one of these characters remains delightfully vivid, controlled not by the machinations of fate but by their own longings. And each of those longings is illustrated in voices entirely singular to the respective character. J.J. is gloriously smarmy, not so much self-impressed as desperate to impress. Bud’s rambling monologues reveal deep pockets of wounded pride. Ellen is unaffectedly to the point, as if she’s endured enough of Bud’s crap over the years. Maybe she has. Their late movie sequence in a hotel restaurant out of their weight class in which they suddenly, beautifully, heartbreakingly hash out their relationship sets aside the pull of the plot to simply listen to them talk.
That scene is not only indicative of the film’s willingness to simply give itself over to its characters for long periods at a time but of its primary visual strategy, a dedication to wide angles and long takes. Unlike “Birdman” where those infamously extensive tracking shots were employed to highlight the film’s grandiosity, the oft-static extended shots of “Glass Chin” infuse the scenes with reality. These shots let you see, let you feel, the world around these characters, like the all-inclusive shots of Bud and Ellen’s bedroom that is always sure to take in their little Peanuts-esque Christmas tree listing alongside, hapless yet a looming reminder of the emptiness of their aspirations.
These long takes are never put to better effect than the elongated shadowy sequence in Bud kitchen in which he is confronted by J.J. who delivers his ultimate ultimatum and slips out just ahead of Ellen who then is forced to deal with trying to clean up Bud’s sudden emotional mess. As this unfolds, the camera gradually, almost imperceptibly, moves in closer and closer, narrowing the gap until all that’s left in the frame is Bud and Ellen, him weeping, her consoling, an effortlessly evocative portrait of the walls closing in.