The first thing you should know about The Art of Self-Defense is that it is wickedly funny. Which isn’t to say that it’s a movie filled with jokes. In fact, I’m not really sure if there’s anything I’d call a “joke” in the entirety of writer/director Riley Stearns’s script. The closest is probably when the main character’s answering machine, instead of saying “You have no new calls,” intones “No one else left you a message” just to underscore how truly lonely he is. That’s the film’s humor: dry, and straight-faced, and deriving entirely from characters basically just stating the obvious and leaving the audience to react to the absurdity of it all.
The second thing you should know is that the movie is, at times, deeply disturbing. But this isn’t a film that see-saws between tones. Instead, they serve each other, becoming so seamlessly intertwined that the brutality only becomes more shocking because of the humor, and vice versa. The Art of Self-Defense offers an assured, cohesive vision of a world where hyper-masculinity is a dangerous and appealing cure for fear — a world that is both laughably absurd and frighteningly vicious. A world that is just a slightly heightened version of our own.
It’s basically a dead-pan Fight Club, but re-written to make sure everyone gets the message loud and clear that the club is NOT COOL, GUYS, and most definitely IS NOT THE ANSWER.
Jesse Eisenberg brings all of his trademark pent-up nervous energy to bear as Casey, an accountant whose personality is as blandly beige as his khaki jacket. He’s learning French in his spare time. The only liquor in his cabinet is schnapps. He’s so boring, he literally photocopies his co-worker’s titty mag for masturbation material, jacking it over the blurry black-and-white Xerox pages rather than, you know, just buying his own copy. He’s disrespected at work and seemingly has no life outside of his office either — save for his very adorable dachshund pal at home. But his life changes when he is violently attacked by a mysterious motorcycle gang while on his way to buy dog food one night, an event that traumatizes him to his sensitive core — and drives him to protect himself. The good news is that he pretty quickly moves past the idea of buying a handgun, and instead finds himself walking into a local karate studio. But what his sensei, only called Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), offers isn’t just combat skills — it’s a personality makeover. “I want to be what intimidates me,” Casey says, and to achieve that he must do more than learn how to punch with his feet or kick with his hands. He needs to man up! Listen to death metal, start learning to speak German, get a REAL dog… and join the dojo’s mysterious “night class.” Rather than turning his life around, he turns it inside out — but he doesn’t care. It’s working. He’s confident, for the first time ever.
Still, Casey isn’t so far gone that he doesn’t recognize the way Sensei’s karate cult of masculinity is demeaning to the one woman in its midst, Anna (Imogen Poots). She’s stuck teaching the children’s class, despite being by far the most skilled martial artist in the dojo. She’s also overlooked when it’s time for Sensei to hand out a black belt, and she’s stuck changing in a hastily converted women’s locker room that’s basically a closet with a boiler in it. She’s not allowed to partake in the post-class ritualistic cooldown massages (read: naked male stretching) due to her weak feminine hands. But through it all she plays by Sensei’s rules, and so does Casey.
If this sounds like a very on-the-nose exploration of toxic masculinity, it is… and it isn’t. What saves the film from being eye-roll inducing is that all of it is presented as just slightly surreal enough to be ridiculous, and you’re supposed to laugh at how over the top it is (even while the characters play it completely straight). Truly, this movie didn’t have to be about karate at all — and if you’re a martial artist yourself, please forgive the film for intentionally twisting the practice for its own aims. This movie could just as easily be about sports, or poker, or yes, even a Fight Club — any form of structured male bonding with a built-in bullshit hierarchy would do. Karate just happens to provide the framework for this allegory.
But it would all be for naught if it weren’t for the clever final act, which reveals just how insidious Sensei’s night class truly is, and offers Casey a way to reclaim his dignity and find justice all on his own terms — terms that fly in the face of the film’s established brand of “masculinity” and shows what a farce that truly is. It’s not necessarily a comforting resolution, and the overarching plot twist is one you’ll likely see coming, but I still found the way it all played out to be satisfying in a way I didn’t think the film would ultimately achieve. But true to form, The Art of Self-Defense was balanced and assured from top to bottom, and while I’m sure there will be plenty of people who don’t quite buy into its unique tone, it just flat-out worked for me.
And that’s where I’ll leave you, save for one big SPOILER for the squeamish that I’ll leave below the trailer, because there is one plot twist that sensitive viewers may want a heads-up on before they watch it for themselves…
OK, ready for that spoiler?
Casey’s dog is murdered. You don’t see it — there are plenty of other brutal, bloody moments in the film, but thankfully you are spared the brunt of the violence against the dog. However, it’s a John Wick moment that I feel like should be called out — and just like in John Wick, justice is served. I didn’t find that it put me off the movie as a whole, but it was incredibly sad.
The Art of Self-Defense screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Conference.
Header Image Source: Bleecker Street (via YouTube)