Film Review – The Art of Self-Defense
The Art of Self-Defense
The opening scene of Riley Stearn‘s uber-black comedy The Art of Self-Defense masterfully establishes the film’s tone from the outset. Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) sits by himself at a restaurant as a French-speaking couple in the booth across brutally mock him in their native tongue. He appears oblivious until he returns to his car and we see the advanced “Learn French” cassette tapes. He is ultimately unphased because this is Casey’s life. Humiliation as status quo.
Casey is a lonely, peculiar man. He is viciously ridiculed by his co-workers and doesn’t appear to have a friend in the world, let alone a girlfriend. He has a dog, but their relationship is strained. Hell, even his answering machine appears to judge him for the lack of messages received.
After a mugging leaves him hospitalized, Casey takes action like only a reasonable 36 year old man would, by learning karate. When sitting in on a class, he is seduced by the self-appointed Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and is soon on the road to yellow belt, feeling accepted for maybe the first time in his life.
Karate brings about a newfound confidence, however misplaced. A hilarious montage of exacting petty revenges explores the movie’s tricky balance of humor and brutality. And make no mistake, it pulls no punches.
Stearn’s screenplay and direction set The Art of Self-Defense apart from the Fight Club knockoffs you might first be tempted to lump it in with. Its dealing of toxic masculinity is hilarious in its absurdity. He’s criticized for his “feminine” name and choice of dog (for a Dachsund is not a manly enough German dog, you see). When the Sensei learns that Casey’s music of choice is adult contemporary, he bruskly instructs him to start listening to heavy metal in its place. Casey obliges.
The world Stearn has built is cold and alien, which may rub some viewers the wrong way. The entire cast speak in stilted, humorless fashion, despite the fact that what they say is often hysterical. (I counted exactly one smile.) The time and place of the film’s events are indescript and ultimately meaningless. I’d argue, though, these flourishes weirdly ground the film as it delves recklessly further into flight of fancy.
The final 20 minutes in particular is inspired lunacy. It’s difficult to explain without wading into the spoilery deeps but the logical leaps and bounds it takes should in no way work, but are executed with assured aplomb. Jaw, dropped.
Characters act out with little to no consequences, as if no world exists outside the dojo. The dialogue and its delivery call to mind that of Yorgos Lanthimos, and the weird world-building is oddly reminiscent of an earlier Eisenberg effort, The Double. But The Art of Self-Defense is uniquely its own. I think it’s safe to say I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with writer/director Riley Stearn.