Noah Buschel’s atmospheric yet tepid noir The Missing Person followed an unlikely case of hidden identity being investigated by a private detective, a noir archetype that the writer-director augmented into an aching symbol of post-9/11 confusion. In Glass Chin, Buschel’s follow-up to 2012’s Sparrows Dance, the cliché being re-thought is that of the down-and-out ex-pugilist, personified by Corey Stoll’s Bud Gordon, who finds himself returning to his role as a brute factotum for quirky kingpin J.J. (Billy Crudup) while also training a promising welter-weight contender. The story is familiar, but the director undermines the tight, expected narrative turns of such a film by focusing on the cast’s worn-in and jazzy repartee and expressing a perfectly modulated sense of self-awareness.
Whereas The Missing Person relied far too heavily on Michael Shannon’s alluring strangeness, Glass Chin spreads the wealth of a more diverse world of characters. Bud’s conversations with Ellen (Marin Ireland), his Buddhist girlfriend, weave together domestic anxiousness, philosophical panic, and professional disillusionment, and help ground the movie when Buschel’s script indulges the overt canniness of the crime plot. A sequence in J.J.’s art gallery, showcasing an old-fashioned trailer fitted with a sleekly designed, hyper-modern interior, works as an encapsulation of the filmmaker’s feelings about nostalgia, but also strains partially because his bleak view of the young and rich begins to feel vague and general.
Thankfully, Glass Chin is saved by Buschel’s lightly abstracted aesthetic, which often plays with time in ways that evoke Bud’s complicated relationship with the past. Bud is still hurting from the dissolution of his restaurant, and still yearns for the glamorous life that his former successes afforded him; he won’t even let Ellen get a day job to help support their modest life together. Though the story is linear, scenes seem to run into others, often through extended dialogue, making past and present feel inseparable. As a nice twist, the film utilizes the New York Dolls’ classic “Trash” to eerily stir up an anecdote involving J.J.’s right-hand man, Roberto (Yul Vazquez), while Dolls singer David Johansen, who went on to become an actor, shows up in a very funny bit part.
For the most part, Buschel’s micro-noir has a rare and potent sense of menace, but never to the point where the characters feels as if they’re held down by the mood, a major hindrance in the director’s previous features. Here, he convincingly sees the distance between industrial New Jersey and glitzy Manhattan as one primarily of class and of a certain kind of “ironic” taste, especially in technology, design, and the arts. In an unassuming way, Buschel cleverly evokes the struggles of being fresh and inventive while also beholden to a classical genre. Visually, there’s a sense that the director is a bit too curt with some of his more inspired framings, but then, Glass Chin is powered by how viscerally direct and spontaneous the film feels, like that last, swift jab that puts an opponent on the mat.