The Art of Self-Defense
Violent comedy finds humor in the hypermasculine
The Art of Self-Defense (2019)
Directed by Riley Stearns
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
Twenty years ago Fight Club taught us the dangerous, contusion-filled consequences of toxic masculinity. Fifteen years ago, Napoleon Dynamite encouraged us to root for alienated dorks. Now the blackly comic indie film The Art of Self-Defense comes along to serve as the seemingly ill-conceived but somehow harmonious love child of those two cult favorites.
Jesse Eisenberg, who knows his way around a geeky performance (Zombieland, The Social Network), is our guide into this world of insecurity, sublimated anger and cathartic violence. He plays Casey, a timid accountant working at a nameless corporation where he’s regularly shunned by the alpha males in the break room. He’s basically the poster child for emasculated anonymity. One night, while out buying food for his wiener dog, Casey is mugged and severely beaten by a gang of bikers—an incident that leaves him feeling even weaker and more insecure than usual.
Scarred both physically and mentally, Casey takes time off from the job to recuperate. Unable to move on and now scared of even going outside his apartment at night, he considers purchasing a gun. (“We sell child safety locks that work reasonably well,” offers the clerk.) One fateful day, however, Casey stumbles across a low-rent karate dojo in his neighborhood, and his fate is sealed.
The seedy little storefront studio is run by a mysterious sensei (“Call me Sensei.”), played by Alessandro Nivola from Face/Off, Jurassic Park III and American Hustle. Sensei peddles a mixture of half-conceived Sun Tzu-style Eastern philosophy and macho, bone-breaking martial arts. In Casey he sees a scared little man, unwilling (as yet) to step up and accept his inner badass.
Casey, for his part, proves to be the perfect eager disciple for the gruff guru. In short order he has stopped going to his job and spends every day training at the dojo, myopically chasing after the coveted “yellow belt.” Impressed by Casey’s growing confidence, Sensei invites him to join the school’s super secret “night class.” There, violence and revenge are the watchwords. At Sensei’s urging, Casey gives up adult contemporary music for death metal and trades French lessons (“Please don’t hurt me. I’m just a tourist.”) for German lessons (“Buy the next round of beer, or I will fight you!”).
As the quirky, unpredictable narrative stumbles on, The Art of Self-Defense grows darker and more disturbing. Between the quirky characters and the deadpan humor, you hardly notice when the film has turned the corner into a very dark alleyway. It’s not exactly a horror story, but its secrets do slip from melancholy to macabre before you know it. As the stakes get higher and deadlier, Casey starts to question the authority of Sensei—particularly when it comes to the dojo’s sole female instructor (played by Brit Imogen Poots from 28 Weeks Later and Green Room). Sensei doesn’t trust women (“Their fingers aren’t strong enough.”) and doesn’t believe they can become proper black belts. This more or less proves that Sensei isn’t any better role model than Casey’s hypermasculine, Tucker Max-style coworkers back in the office.
Writer-director Riley Stearns (who gave us 2014’s little-seen Faults) proves himself an able comic creator and a filmmaker to watch. This film’s opening bit is a perfectly constructed joke and sets the scene for what’s to come. Mixing that cutting humor with the film’s thriller-like buildup is certainly a gamble, and not every moment is so well-balanced. Thankfully, Eisenberg (and the rest of the excellent cast) works hard to smooth out the film’s many shifts in tone. Throughout it all Eisenberg keeps Casey grounded and sympathetic, and there are moments when his crazy karate journey feels surprisingly heartfelt.
Many of the movie’s more idiosyncratic elements may be familiar (even common) to indie cinema. But by mixing intentionally awkward dialogue, offbeat characters, grubby production design and blunt violence, The Art of Self-Defense ends up becoming its own unique creation—a hilarious and hard-hitting punch to the nuts. This is how cult films are born.
Theaters are closed until further notice
But if you would like a snapshot to help you remember how things used to be…