The Art of Self-Defense is a dark comedy written and directed by Riley Stearns, and stars Jesse Eisenberg as Casey Davies, a socially awkward loner who doesn’t get along well with his co-workers due to his “lack of masculinity,” and lives alone with his Dachshund. One night, Casey is jumped by a motorcycle gang after going out to get dog food from a local convenience store, and the PTSD he experiences as a result of this savage attack begins to weigh on him, causing him to fear everything around him: the dark, other men, being outside – everything. Casey is shaken to his core, and after happening upon a class at a local karate studio, decides to begin learning the martial art as a form of self-defense. After successfully completing his first trial class, Casey chooses to continue on at the studio, learning from their Sensei, played by Alessandro Nivola. Sensei is a ruthless but fair karate instructor, and after Casey tells him “I want to be what intimidates me,” Sensei takes on the task of not just teaching Casey self-defense, but self-confidence, and what it means to be a man. The film also stars Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, and Phillip Andre Botello.
I hadn’t heard much about The Art of Self-Defense before going to see it at The Kentucky Theatre on Sunday, so I didn’t have much notion of what to expect. The trailer seemed to give off the vibe of a satirical, more dry-humored comedy, but I was surprised to learn once reviews for the film were released that toxic masculinity was one of the main driving forces behind the film’s darker, edgier themes. This intrigued me, as the notion of toxic masculinity as a corrosive and genuinely harmful thing hasn’t really been portrayed on-screen as brutally or unflinchingly as it really should have by now. (For those who may not be aware, “toxic masculinity” is the notion of holding to standards, values, or actions/words that are considered “manly” simply because of its “masculine” connotations, where in the real world, such a fearful or disrespectful aversion to anything that might be construed as feminine can be destructive, corrosive, even violent, both on the soul and the mind). I had to discover what this film had to say about the world we live in today; what does toxic masculinity really look like from the perspective of one its most prolific victims, men? I had to question how this movie was going to deliver that message through an off-beat comedy; the answer I got was nothing like I could have expected.
The film absolutely does tackle the issue of toxic masculinity, but in a much darker way than I, or perhaps anyone, ever would have expected. Yes, Sensei teaches Casey self-confidence, but it’s a false confidence that ultimately just ends up hurting those around him who care for him. After a while, this begins to turn Casey into someone we not only don’t recognize as having been the character we sympathize with at the beginning, but don’t like very much anymore, wishing instead that he would just quit going back to this studio that’s teaching him all the wrong values about what really matters. As the film plays out, and Casey becomes more and more “masculine” at the behest of Sensei, we practically beg just one of these characters to do the right thing and set it all straight.
With each little twist of the toxic masculinity knife, we come to understand that Sensei’s philosophy actually has very little to do with karate and a lot more to do with his hatred of anything feminine. Not only is that a brave and rather ingenious take to make a karate movie out of, it actually gives his character some added weight and relative nuance. Toxic masculinity isn’t always so obvious or on the surface, and to bury those traits so deeply into one of the film’s three main characters, demonstrating both how it affects him and all those around him for the worse gives the movie somewhere to go that audiences will probably guess but be nonetheless horrified by in action. I won’t spoil where the movie goes with this, but suffice it to say, things go down in this movie that will have your jaw on the floor and your hand gripping the arm rest (or in my girlfriend’s case, the arm of the person next to you).
And the most remarkable thing about it all is that what would typically considered a huge jaw-drop spoiler moment is presented on camera as just a normal facet of the movie. There’s no “gotcha!” moment, no music cue telling you how to feel; there’s just you, and what’s happening on screen, and the real horror comes from watching how toxic masculinity forces the characters to accept those moments as just how things are. The movie only presents “gotcha” moments when it challenges that toxic masculinity or when it gets called out. Writer/director Riley Stearns has crafted something almost as genuinely shocking as last year’s other brilliant satire comedy Sorry to Bother You, but without all the “shock value” thrown in, instead allowing the audience to soak in the horrors of Sensei’s overall philosophy and the things he does to retain it and teach it to others, especially scenes of physical combat or altercation. I would say the writing’s a bit stronger than the direction overall, but really, a good movie is a good movie, and The Art of Self-Defense is a great movie, likely the darkest to revel in how messed up it gets since American Psycho. I was pretty well delighted when I realized I had no idea where this movie would actually end up by the end, and that’s not something I get to say often, fun as the journey through the predictable may be in other features.
The performances are uniformly fantastic, particularly from the leading three, and Eisenberg once again excels as a socially-awkward effeminate type. That’s not exactly a surprise considering his Zombieland and Social Network roles going quite similar directions (though being wildly different movies) where his characters in them also struggle with what it means to be a man and bring about plenty of their own doom by trying to attain what he’s been taught that meaning is, but it’s nice to see that Social Network was no fluke and Batman v Superman was hardly a critical blow to his acting career. I really hope we don’t take for granted just how good Eisenberg is as an actor, especially playing this type of character, cause the day we do, I’m not sure we’ll deserve to watch any more of his range on display.
Imogen Poots is also quite good as the only female student/instructor of the karate studio that Casey is attending. She’s quite adept at the physical aspects of the role, of course, as should anyone be whilst making a movie about a literal karate studio, but it’s in the quiet moments where she really gets to shine; as the camera focuses on her face during scenes where her character is being ignored, disrespected, or questioned, there’s so much going on behind the eyes one can’t help but admire the sheer skill it takes to be an on-camera actor and make it look so natural. If she wants to continue doing movies after this, I’ll be more than happy to show up for them.
The biggest surprise, though, ends up being Alessandro Nivola, and while I won’t spoil what goes down with his character or how he develops overall, his performances continues to steal the show every moment he’s on screen. He’ll certainly go down as one of the year’s best-written characters by the end of 2019, and I wouldn’t surprised to see him bag some much more high-profile roles in the very near future. His confidence and his arrogance are constantly at war with each other, and at multiple points in the movie, he’s asked to play some notes that even the most seasoned of actors would have trouble doing in their best sleep. It really is quite a memorable turn for the actor, and gives his character some extremely well-rounded background that both shocks and delights (depending on how dark you like your dark comedies).
In the end, The Art of Self-Defense is probably a bit too small of a movie to launch any hefty Oscar campaigns or make much of a splash in the summer box office pool, but if you have the chance to go see something brave and original like this, please do go if you can find the time. The writing is really great and very smart for a small feature like this, the performances are fantastic, and the way the film tackles the actual toxicity of toxic masculinity is something so wonderfully twisted that you have to experience for yourself. Definitely give this one a shot.
I’m giving “The Art of Self-Defense” a 9.5/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.