The Art of Self-Defense

The Art of Self-Defense ★★★½

A razor-sharp critique of toxic masculinity in contemporary culture, and more broadly of the use of violence as a means to an end, The Art of Self-Defense is a darkly comic character study that mercilessly satirizes America's obsession with hyper-masculinity. With his second feature, writer-director Riley Stearns channels the likes of other offbeat satirists Alexander Payne and Yorgos Lanthimos in telling the story of Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a quietly submissive accountant with little to concern himself but his menial office job and his beloved pet dog, a dachshund who's every bit as doe-eyed and unimposing as him. After falling victim to a random act of violence carried out by a motorcycle gang, a deeply shaken Casey finds himself more consumed with fear of the outside world then ever. After an awkward trip to the gun store where he learns he must wait for the results of a background check to go through before he can purchase a handgun (one of many moments of deadpan humor in the film), he decides to visit a nearby dojo, whose owner is a stern but otherwise unassuming man known only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) to receive karate lessons. The classes are competitive and grueling, and Sensei operates with a calm, no-nonsense demeanor while also displaying a natural charisma that commands both fear and respect from his students. In Casey he see's not a great physical specimen by any means, but rather a meek individual perfect for taking under his wing, consumed with a need to stand up against a world that has always dominated him.

Casey is quickly promoted to the rank of yellow belt, a designation he takes with the utmost pride, and immediately finds himself enamored with the teachings of Sensei and the martial arts, throwing himself into his newfound discipline with a near-religious fervor. When Sensei pulls Casey aside after one lesson and the two speak privately, he likens Casey to a blade that he's going to sharpen, encouraging him to reject all that is feminine and embrace masculinity and the use of force above all else. It's about here that The Art of Self-Defense begins to feel a little less like Office Space and a little more like Fight Club, as Casey moves deeper into the inner workings of the dojo, and Sensei's teachings and methods grow ever more extreme. The strongest critique of Sensei's very particular brand of toxic masculinity is provided, fittingly, by the sole female character in the film, Anna (Imogen Poots). An instructor of the children's karate classes and by far one of the top martial artists in the dojo, Casey comes to learn she has been routinely denied a deserving black belt from Sensei solely because she is a woman, among other injustices. Poots delivers arguably the strongest performance in the film, infusing Anna with a steely grit and toughness that nonetheless hides an underlying ache to be treated with the same respect as her peers. Her performance contrasts effectively with Eisenberg's, which almost veers into parody as the soft-spoken accountant begins to transform into a throat-punching metalhead. Eisenberg continues to show surprising new depths as an actor, even when portraying characters who could all be described broadly as socially awkward over-thinkers prone to brief spasms of rage and other intense emotions, such as his Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. As Sensei, the over-the-top Nivola expertly commands the screen, bringing to mind J.K. Simmons much celebrated supporting turn in Whiplash, another film about a mild-mannered protege who falls under the intense tutelage of a domineering mentor who pushes them past their breaking point.

As a writer, Stearns' matter-of-fact dialogue and the way his characters speak is so direct as to strike some as jarring. Motivations and emotions are spelled out plainly scene after scene by characters, almost in a manner that pokes fun at the kung-fu flicks one imagines Sensei has modeled his teachings after. It may take a bit of getting use to for some audiences, but much like in the black comedy of The Lobster, the dryness of the actor's delivery is also what makes the very specific humor land in many cases. Behind the camera Stearns is similarly straightforward with his camera movements and compositions, frequently constructing scenes in an appropriately low-key manner which serves to emphasize both the performances of his actors and serve the overall tone of the film. I also appreciated the simple-yet-effective set design of Casey's apartment as well as the interiors of the dojo, which assist to flesh out Stearns' vision. As a commentary on narrow and toxic masculine norms, The Art of Self-Defense certainly succeeds as satire, even if its observations hit a little too on-the-nose in its final moments to leave viewers with much to uncover beneath the surface. I'll be interested to see what Stearns does as a follow-up, but The Art of Self-Defense certainly proves he is a filmmaker to watch out for.

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