The Art of Self-Defense Review: A Look at Forced Masculinity

2019.11.19
The Art of Self-Defense Review: A Look at Forced Masculinity
Column
Dexian Wang
by Dexian Wang
The Art of Self-Defense Review: A Look at Forced Masculinity

Score: 4/5

What makes someone decide to enrol into a martial arts programme? And what makes someone stick with it? These are questions writer-director Riley Stearns explores in this dark comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots and Alessandro Nivola.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Casey Davies, who is a very Jesse Eisenberg character: a socially awkward and lonely accountant. When he makes a dog food run for his beloved dachshund in the middle of the night, he gets attacked by a group of bikers. He's hospitalised and becomes fearful of going out at night, leading him to consider buying a gun to protect himself. After leaving the gun store, he chances upon a Karate dojo run by Sensei (Nivola), with Anna (Poots), a brown belt, running the kids' classes. Predictably, Casey falls in love with Karate, and it consumes his life.

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If anything, Stearns manages to capture quite accurately the almost cult-like mentality that exists in dojos, especially from the point-of-view of newcomers. Dudes grappling half-naked in the locker room before class? Sounds right. Comparing and taking way too much pride in the colours of the belts? Too real.

Stearns uses this setting to deliver some off-kilter humour based on observations like the above, delivered with deadpan seriousness by Eisenberg and the cast. The direction of the narrative often takes a turn for the unexpected, with things getting dark and occasionally very violent. There's an uneasiness throughout the whole movie, as it's often difficult to guess what exactly is happening next. The main focus of the narrative centres around Casey's motivations for enrolling and training, with Sensei pushing Casey towards his own vision of what a hyper-masculine ubermensch should be. It results in one of the best scenes in the movie, where Sensei tells Casey to switch from adult contemporary music to metal, as well as to switch his interest from France to Germany because those are more masculine choices:

 

The performances are a bright spot, with Jesse Eisenberg in his element with Stearns' brand of sinister yet offbeat humour, firing off looks of stoic seriousness, confusion and vulnerability with ease. Supporting him is Nivola, who does a hilariously scary job portraying the Sensei, a man who's completely bought into his own philosophies and hype. How the jokes and humour land will be almost entirely down to the viewer's appreciation of black comedy. Still, the movie's commentary on the insecurities that accompany modern masculinity and martial arts culture is frequently spot-on. That Stearns delivers it in the form of a uniquely dark comic thriller that's tense, with a smattering of chuckle-worthy moments to boot, is certainly very welcome.

The Art of Self-Defense