Fear is a powerful motivator. As we’re seeing at the moment, decisions based in fear can have profound effects. Writer-director Riley Stearns explores similarly dire consequences – along with the price of toxic masculinity – in The Art of Self-Defense.
Mild-mannered Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) lives alone with his dachshund and works as an accountant. His existence is relentlessly humdrum, until an ill-fated trip to the store for dog food changes his life. A gang of bikers sets on him, beating him badly. After he’s release from hospital, Casey is afraid – of the dark, of motorcycles, and of other men. But a snap decision to walk into a nondescript shopfront introduces him to the world of karate. He walks in on a kids’ class run by hard-nosed Anna (Imogen Poots). Fascinated, he meets with Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) who invites him to try a class for free. Sensei is an enigmatic figure, and his offbeat charms draw Casey in. A promotion from white belt to yellow belt soon follows, and cements Casey’s fascination with the sport. But something’s not quite right about the dojo – something brought brutally to the fore when Sensei introduces Casey to his night class.
As you might gather, there’s more than a little Fight Club about The Art of Self-Defense. The main difference between the two is that where Fight Club revelled in its machismo, Stearns uses it to highlight dark side of macho culture. That includes some blatant sexism and several doses of often-gruesome violence. Along the way, Stearns also dips his toe into American gun culture, though it’s more of an aside. And while Stearns’ script cleverly “closes the loop”, it runs out of steam in the third act.
The film is marketed as a “black comedy”, but it’s definitely not Fargo. The comedy is very restrained, so you might find yourself giving a wry smile rather than a chuckle. The darkness meanwhile is ramped up. Things spiral out of control a bit towards the end, especially when Stearns leans on a couple of too-cute twists. Still, The Art of Self-Defense is at its best when tackling the more outrageous consequences of machismo as expressed in contemporary culture.
Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland: Double Tap) does his now-familiar dweeby character to great effect. Since the film is basically told from his perspective, he’s in just about every scene. He manages however to effectively become the “glue” holding the whole thing together. Alessandro Nivola (Disobedience) is also good as Sensei, though I thought he could have “leaned into” the character’s eccentricities a little more. Imogen Poots (Black Christmas) delivers a knockout (pun – sadly – intended) performance as the laser-focussed Anna.
While it’s far from perfect, The Art of Self-Defense is nonetheless a diverting and often intriguing thriller with comic overtones. While some of its ideas don’t really work, props to Stearns for having the courage of his convictions. So although I didn’t entirely love this film, I’m interested to see what he does next.
The Art of Self-Defense is now streaming on Amazon Prime
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Vivarium (Umbrella) – movie review
- Disobedience – movie review
- The Hummingbird Project – movie review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television