The long-awaited second feature from Riley Stearns after quirky 2014 cult thriller Faults stars Jesse Eisenberg as Casey, a depressed and meek loner seduced by a martial-arts cult after a near-death experience.
Casey is a bookish accountant whose unisex name isn’t the only thing men find feminine about him; he owns a dachshund, is learning French, and listens to soft contemporary music. He also spends his days surveying expense reports, being mocked by his co-workers, and generally avoiding any eye contact with his peers. At night, he mostly locks himself in his apartment, masturbates, and has conversations with his dog. As hard as he tries to ingratiate himself with the other men, he seems to always come up short. One night while walking to the store to buy food for his dachshund, a gang of motorcycle hooligans beats him within an inch of his life, then leave him to die on the asphalt.
When he finally nurses himself back to health, Casey looks for ways to protect himself — first by purchasing firearms, and later by signing up for karate classes. This new hobby gives him both purpose and discipline, and more importantly, it makes him feel wanted — thanks to a charismatic karate instructor (Alessandro Nivola) who does everything in his power to boost his self-confidence. Despite his lack of talent, Casey pushes hard in hopes of impressing his colleagues, and maybe one day owning a black belt. After revealing what motivated him to take karate in the first place, his Sensei invites him to his private night class. That’s when his reality becomes a surreal, twisted nightmare, and over the course of a set of unpredictable events, the night class leads to violence, while Sensei reveals himself to be a dangerously disturbed individual.
When discussing The Art of Self-Defense, it’s hard to ignore plot comparisons to David Fincher’s Fight Club. The film isn’t anywhere near as stylized as Fincher’s classic, nor does it have the soundtrack, big budget, or the star power to dazzle mainstream moviegoers, but like Fight Club, Stearns’ sophomore feature is about the quest for an ideal masculinity. And like Fight Club, The Art of Self-Defense investigates toxic masculinity within a cult led by the enigmatic Sensei, who preys on a lonely and confused man. At the start Casey is timid, weak, vulnerable and downright defenseless; Sensei knows this, and so does everything in his power to manipulate him. As Casey finds himself dangerously drawn deeper and deeper into the culture of the dojo, it affects every aspect of his personality and life in dangerous ways. To be a man, one must learn to punch with their feet and kick with their fists says Sensei, whose karate school soon reveals itself to be similar to an actual terrorist organization.
The Art of Self-Defense is also drawing comparisons to Jody Hill’s bleak but brilliant Observe and Report, as well as Danny McBride’s severely underrated Foot Fist Way, with its deadpan humour and overall slapdash structure. Only, unlike those films, The Art of Self-Defence isn’t really funny. In fact, despite what some critics will have you believe, the film is downright depressing, and when Casey fully steps into his alpha self, it’s quite terrifying to witness Sensei manipulate, abuse, and brainwash his student.
The Art of Self-Defense is a film that can test your patience. I wouldn’t call the pacing unbearably slow, but it does take its sweet time getting from one scene to the next, with characters saying and doing things that seem oddly out of place. Stearns’ script has a tendency to linger on oddly mundane moments and dry interactions that at times overstay their welcome, but what makes The Art of Self-Defense great is how it manages to shift its gears entirely and surprise viewers. It helps that the cast is uniformly strong, most notably Jesse Eisenberg and his co-star Imogen Poots, who plays Anna, one of Sensei’s pupils and the film’s only woman — and foil to all the men. Eisenberg’s Casey is indeed similar to the characters that the actor has become famous for, only this might be his wildest performance ever. As the karate-obsessed loser on the brink of losing his mind, Casey is simultaneously pathetic and frightening, and yet you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Meanwhile, Imogen Poots’ Anna has infinitely more confidence than Casey, but she has internalized so much of the dojo’s misogyny that she’s clearly emotionally damaged and unable to crawl out of her shell.
The Art of Self-Defense juggles several emotions from scene to scene. It can be absurd yet relevant — fun and disarmingly scary right down to it disturbingly cathartic climax. It goes in so many different directions, in fact, that it feels impossible to pigeonhole into one specific genre but that’s what ultimately gives it a staying power. The twists and turns that follow seem straight out of a traditional kung fu movie, only it doubles as a keen critique of male violence and the notion of power at large. Shot in a mere 21 days, The Art of Self-Defense is one of the better American indie films of 2019 — and makes Riley Stearns a talent to watch.
– Ricky D