The Art of Self-Defense | Riley Stearns | July 12, 2019
When we first meet Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), our protagonist in The Art of Self-Defense, we are not impressed. He lacks self-confidence, as well a self of identity and purpose, outside of his pet dachshund who lovingly waits for him in his lonely apartment. He has no friends outside of his boss at work, where he garners no respect from any of the employees who shoot the shit in the break room.
One night when out getting dog food at the grocery store, he is jumped and beaten to a pulp by a gang of motorcyclists. Already as timid as a mouse, Casey is now more fearful than ever before, afraid of just stepping foot outside at night. His first response is to head to a gun shop to buy a handgun, but he sees a new path when he stumbles into a karate dojo run by an eccentric Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). He sees an opportunity to learn how to defend himself and is eager to plunge into this new world which he soon becomes completely engulfed in and obsessed over, to the point where he’s literally trying to find ways to wear his karate belt with his normal everyday clothes.
Written and directed by Riley Stearns, The Art of Self-Defense operates completely in its own orbit. An exact setting is never confirmed and neither is the time period, although vintage TVs, VHS tapes, and a line about “renting a film” helps give you some idea that it’s not in the era of iPhones and Twitter. But Stearns confidently immerses the viewer in a world of drab dark comedy that tip-toes the line between being darkly comedic and just plain dark, like an oddball combination of Fight Club, Office Space, and Napoleon Dynamite, it’s very much working in a strange wheelhouse completely of its own.
Stearns tackles the absurdity of toxic masculinity and the absurd ideas that are beholden by many of what it means to truly be “a man” (a growing theme in recent years, like this year’s Stuber). Various characters mock Casey for his “feminine name” or for his interest in all things French or even for owning such a small dog. His Sensei insists that he should stop listening to Adult Contemporary and instead blast heavy metal (not hard rock) in order to truly tap into his true potential as a karate student. Anna (Imogen Poots), the lone female student in their class, is clearly the best of them all, yet she is the last one to ever be considered to get the desired black belt. Casey finds his purpose in the dojo but soon learns that all is not as it seems and it completely changes his worldview.
The Art of Self-Defense finds a quirky way to take a bite at these themes and does so with the odd tone that pulls us into this world. It proceeds to dabble in some surprisingly dark and sinister aspects that are interjected with plenty of desert-dry slices of humor that hit to varying degrees. Cinematographer Michael Ragen captures all of the purposefully isolating and depressing settings in a way that frames the world as a cold and isolating place that seems without meaning or purpose. Not all of it pans out the way that Stearns intends, but the performances from Eisenberg, Nivola, and Poots are all fascinating in their own ways and provide different layers that rise to the surface in surprising ways.
What exactly does it mean to be a man or a confident man at that? Does it matter to anyone but yourself? Should it matter? These are themes that Stearns confidently tackles in his own unique way. Although at first, it seems like it’s headed into fairly familiar indie film festival territory, The Art of Self-Defense subverts your expectations, welcoming you into the nuttiest karate class you’ll ever take. This has future cult classic written all over it.