Verdict: This satire on toxic masculinity earns its black belt.
Riley Stearns made his debut as a feature film director with the off-beat 2014 film Faults. The Art of Self-Defense is his second film, which premiered at SXSW and has since then gained praise from critics worldwide. In the film, Stearns takes a look at toxic masculinity through the story of a man learning karate.
What’s The Art of Self-Defense About:
Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) is a mild-mannered office worker who doesn’t have much of a connection with anyone beyond his pet dachshund. One night, he’s attacked by a gang of motorcycle bikers and left for dead in the street. After this incident, he becomes terrified of the outside world and even tries to purchase a gun for self-defense. But when he comes across a karate class, his life changes. The mysterious and charismatic instructor Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) takes a liking to Casey and decides to turn him into a fierce warrior not just through karate, but through every aspect of his life. Soon enough, Casey learns that being a part of the dojo is about more than progressing his karate skills and moving up the belt ranks.
Written and directed by Riley Stearns, the film has a simple plot but an interesting execution. While it’s grounded in reality, there’s a surreal feel to it, particularly as the characters never quite behave like real people. This creative decision feels appropriate for the film as it prioritizes the subject over the characters. The performances are brilliant, with the actors bringing these caricatural characters to life. Jesse Eisenberg takes on the awkward character he’s known for and convincingly stretches it to its extremes. The role is perfect for him and he seamlessly blends into the character. Alessandro Nivola gives an excellent portrayal of hypermasculinity through Sensei, delivering outlandish dialogues such as “kick with your fists and punch with your feet” with confidence. Imogen Poots, who plays the only female student and instructor at the dojo, gives an equally fascinating performance.
The Art of Self-Defense is hilarious but its humor goes to dark places. While it’s not as violent as some action films, when things do happen, they seem more brutal because of the unflinching casualness with which they are presented. This makes the film’s statement on toxic masculinity even stronger as shocking events unfold.
What Could’ve Been Better:
The Art of Self-Defense isn’t a film for everyone and some parts of it may be too disturbing for some viewers. Certain bits of the story might be predictable but there are plenty of surprising elements you won’t see coming.
Why You Should Watch:
The Art of Self-Defense is what you get when you combine the testosterone-fueled philosophy of Fight Club with the oddity of Yorgos Lanthimos. It’s unique, funny, and quite memorable. It also leaves you with much to ponder after you are done being entertained.