The Art of Self-Defense (2019) – Riley Stearns

The Art of Self-Defense is the 2019 dark comedy by writer and director Riley Stearns, starring Jesse Eisenberg as the lead Casey. There are things unexplained in the film, like when exactly it is set, but while the inconsequential violence, attitudes and behaviours of some of the characters are exaggerated, they are alarmingly all too real in today’s climate. I found the film to be well paced with an apt run time. Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast for the introverted and reclusive Casey, as is shown in his performance in The Social Network (Fincher, 2010). Yet, instead of portraying an egotistical character like Mark Zuckerberg at a tense time during lawsuits, in The Art of Self-Defense, Casey’s character is timid, understated, and goes unnoticed.

Casey’s sense of self is what motivates the action in the film, as we gain access to his monotonous routine, which even his answering machine is exasperated by. He works long hours as an accountant and then returns home to his dachshund. But when he is robbed by a motorcycle gang, the anxious and awkward accountant decides to start taking karate classes in order to feel safer and become more intimidating. He gains confidence and acts in a way he thinks is tough (listening to heavy metal), under the instruction of his Sensei, played by Alessandro Nivola. The Sensei is serious and strong, and Casey idealises his power and gains more confidence in himself by following the Sensei’s guidance.

Casey becomes sucked into this new world and karate becomes his obsession – he wants to wear his yellow karate belt at all times for assurance. The tough, testosterone fuelled, fighting bubble he enters darkens. I enjoyed the plot of the story and how things tied together. Stearns sprinkled things into the storyline that would show up again later and become relevant in the plot, which I appreciated. There was also action and violence which felt necessary for the film’s tone.

The dialogue in the film is dry, and I found it to be reminiscent of some of the matter-of-fact, direct speech in Wes Anderson’s films. Yet, while quirky (like Anderson’s work), Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense is darker, a thread that intensifies as the film progresses. Satirical in the way it portrays America, from topical issues of gun control and hyper-masculinity, the film feels current.

The other main characters, of the Sensei and Anna (Imogen Poots), were well cast and I think that both of their performances had weight behind them and were symbolic. Nivola’s Sensei is unemotional and fierce, intimidating while also compelling. While Imogen Poots’ Anna bears the brunt of being the only female in the dojo who doesn’t hold back.

The Art of Self-Defense is a quirky film, with detached violence. Toxic masculinity and its limiting landscape is at the core of this dark comedy. Jesse Eisenberg’s character navigates this world, which rejects vulnerability and forces brutishness in a cult-like fashion.

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