A film review by Craig J. Koban November 13, 2019

THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE jjj

2019, R, 104 mins.

 

Jesse Eisenberg as Casey  /  Alessandro Nivola as Sensei  /  Imogen Poots as Anna  /  Steve Terada as Thomas  /  Phillip Andre Botello as Kennith  /  Jason Burkey as Alex  /  David Zellner as Henry  /  Leland Orser as Detective McCallister

Written and directed by Riley Stearns

Writer/director Riley Stearns' THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE is one of 2019s great cinematic curveballs.  

It begins as a potential THE KARATE KID clone and then morphs into an ultra dark comedy that takes many unnerving and unpredictable twists and turns.  I found it to be a simultaneously hilarious and unexpectedly chilling commentary on toxic masculinity.  What Stearns has ultimately achieved here is an extremely tough balancing act: There's a deadpan and frequently amusing comedic element to the whole enterprise, but mixed in with that is the decidedly bleaker underbelly of a disturbing thriller.  It's the very subversion of audience expectations at nearly every waking moment of THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE's running time that makes it so joyously unhinged and chillingly compelling.   

A perfectly cast Jesse Eisenberg stars as Casey, a inordinately shy and mild mannered thirtysomehting that constantly seems like he's uncomfortable within his own skin. He lives a sad and pathetically lonely life of solitude (if you exclude his dachshund dog roommate) and apparently has no active close ties with family or any real friends (he comes home to empty voicemail boxes on a regular basis).  His work life as a lowly accountant affords him very little solace either, mostly because he's so awkward and anti-social that his fellow colleagues barely acknowledge his existence.  Just about everyone in this man's life disregards him and his relative worth, which is tragically driven home one hellish night when he's viscously jumped on the street (as he was waking home from the grocery store to bring his starving pooch some food) and is brutally beaten to a pulp by a gang of helmet wearing marauders.   

After a lengthy hospital stay and recovery (during which time he doesn't appear to have any visitors), Casey decides to take some extra time off work and explore his options to defend himself if the opportunity arises again.  He walks into a local gun shop, fills out the necessary papers, and then is disappointed with the wait time required to access his new pistol.  In a sly moment that's indicative of this film's ultra dry sense of macabre humor, the gun store owner matter of factly and politely informs Casey that "In a violent confrontation the armed victim is much more likely to be killed than the unarmed assailant" and that "suicide is more common with gun owners."  He then wishes the hapless sap to have a nice day.  Casey's first gun purchase didn't go as smoothly as he would hope, which causes him to re-think his whole approach to self-defense. 

This takes him to a local karate dojo that's ruled over with a stern and iron fist by a man named...Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).  To say that something is, well, off about this instructor is an understatement, but he nevertheless offers Casey a free trial class, and when he agrees and joins in he gets instantly hooked right from the get-go, but not because he has any physical affinity with martial arts, but rather because Sensei seems oddly nice and supportive of him in ways that few others have in his life.  Casey meets another one of Sensei's students early on, the only female one, named Anna (Imogen Poots), who seems to be constantly subjugated by Sensei from achieving a higher belt rank, mostly because she's a woman.  When Sensei takes a stronger interest and liking to Casey he awards him quickly with the rank of yellow belt, much to the chagrin of Anna.  Things change forever for Casey and his training when he's invited to an exclusive night class for special students, and it's here where THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE moves away from being a weird, idiosyncratic comedy and into something more perversely dark and unsettling, leading to Casey making some alarmingly unhealthy lifestyle choices for the worse. 

 

 

There's very little early on in THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE that would suggest the undeniably creepy detours that its story takes on later.  Watching Casey's initial character arc reminds one considerably of Daniel LaRusso's in THE KARATE KID: Both characters are physically meek and incapable of defending themselves at the beginning of their respective films, both are attacked by motorcycle driving hooligans, and both seek out the guidance of a wise sensei to help them achieve inner and outer strength via the teachings of karate.  The scripting blueprint provided by the aforementioned 1984 classic is abundantly clear in Stearns' film, but that's where basic, superficial similarities utterly end, seeing as the dojo that Casey ends up isn't very squeaky clean and has a teacher that utilizes some truly savage teaching methods.  The more Casey gets wrapped up in the sordid FIGHT CLUB-esque environment of this strange dojo and its master the more he insatiably craves Sensei's brutal, blood letting lessons and his acceptance of him.   

That's the huge difference with THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE, which helps it elevate well above the moniker of a predictable THE KARATE KID clone.  Sensei is no Mr. Miyagi.  He's basically a soft spoken sadist that uses outward congeniality and a soft spoken demeanor to lure vulnerable prey like Casey into his clan of depravity.   Whereas THE KARATE KID concerned itself in telling a story of how martial arts changed a young man for the better and builds to a feel-good inspirational ending, THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE is all about how karate pollutes a young man's mind and changes him into a delusional puppet at the mercy of his instructor.  There's nothing transformatively positive about Casey's journey throughout THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE, mostly because he becomes more unhealthily obsessed with Sensei's teachings, no matter how dangerous to him and those around him they end up being. 

There's something else going on under the hood of this film as well.  THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE is surprisingly dense on a thematic level, especially for the way that Stearns' screenplay explores the self-destructive ways that troubled men desperately reach out for and try to gain understanding and acceptance from a world they once felt spit on them.  If anything, Sensei's guidance and teachings reinforce the worst possible traits for any man to attain, but the mental ticking time bomb that is Casey ravenously gobbles up every literal lesson, which manifests itself in him changing in normal social settings.  He starts aggressively yelling at everyone in the office.  He physically attacks his boss.  He starts listening to death metal.  Hell, he even considers Sensei's advice to get rid of his tiny dog and get one that's larger, tougher, and more...manly.  Sensei even begins to impart teachings about the frailties of women, specifically as to how it relates to Anna (he absurdly and nonsensically tells Casey at one point that she'll never achieve high rank in his dojo because "Her being a woman will always keep her from becoming a man.").   

This is what ultimately makes THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE so enthralling: it's a take down of poisonous masculinity and the lengths some men will go to in order to feel like they've fully become a productive and assured person.  The performances are key here as well, most notably with Eisenberg, whose performance walks this tricky high wire act of making Casey come off as an initially sympathetic victim and later to a hopelessly misguided thug that lets Sensei's unpardonable tutelage get the better of him.  Alessandro Nivola is exceptional as his deeply narcissistic karate instructor, who manages to be both warm and inviting while evoking a shocking detachment to the well being of those around him; he's a source of some of the film's funniest deadpan lines as well as its most distressing moments, which is a hard dichotomy to pull off.  Poots has a very thankless role here as the dojo's lone female student, and she has to project Anna's outward toughness and resolve as well as relaying all of her introverted insecurities about knowing that she'll always be treated like dirt and marginalized by the ultra sexist and manipulative Sensei.  Her character is crucial to underscoring the film's exploration gender stereotypes being upheld by abusive men in power. 

I think THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE might be a difficult watch for many.  Some of its dialogue exchanges are deliberately and sometimes hysterically stilted, which I think is the intended effect that Stearns was going for here to help reinforce the overall nonchalant madness that typifies Casey's personal journey here.  The ending of this film too will probably deeply polarize many, mostly because it takes some seriously outrageous turns (and builds to a final confrontation between Casey and Sensei and leads to an action by one of them that seems awfully telegraphed).  Still, THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE, much like a karate chop to the jugular, is painfully blunt as a piece of social satire, not to mention that it has a lot to say about the worst facets of masculinity and how some downtrodden people find personal relief in violence tainted subcultures.  Considering the type of film that I was fully expecting going in, I was beyond surprised by the creative ambitiousness of Stearns here, who has the tenacity to work within genre formulas and then flip them upside down in making a black comedy that also manages to be disquietingly timely.  If you think this film is ending with an audience pleasing crane kick at a winner-take-all tournament when the once down-on-his-luck hero triumphantly emerges victorious...think again.

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