“I want to be what intimidates me” is what Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) tells his new sensei (Alessandro Nivola) not long after enrolling in karate lessons at a local dojo. But Casey isn’t enrolling because of a newfound interest in health and fitness − no, he’s signed up because he was mugged and beaten by a gang of masked bikers on his way home from picking up dog food for his tiny Dachshund.
Casey is a socially-challenged, awkward 35-year-old working in accounting with an interest in the French language. And the world surrounding him is one he is not welcome to; one of hyper-masculinity, brawn and intimidation. The Art of Self Defense is a study of such masculine practices, and what it takes to assimilate into a world where physical domination holds the primary force. Director Riley Stearns, having previously made brain-washing cult film Faults, returns to his intentionally emotionally stifled form, once again exploring belonging in an almost cult-like setting.
Eisenberg, whilst still in his traditional typecasting, is at his absolute finest here. He portrays Casey with such a stiffness in both his physical movements and words that watching him navigate his unwelcoming beige world is equal parts tragic and bleakly funny. Before joining the dojo we see him manoeuvre various social settings like cafés and his workplace, the latter of which sees his colleagues exclude him from their break table as they scan through magazines titled with the astrological symbol for Mars i.e the male symbol; it’s a magazine filled exclusively with pictures of tits and guns. The men enthusiastically egg each other on to work out in the break room, in moments that could easily be misconstrued as homo erotic. Stearns frames so much of his film in such a way, depicting clear power dynamics between men but doing so in a shot that could be pulled from the introduction to a gay porno. Stearn constantly reaches for machismo in the ‘outside world’ and contrasts it with the dry, submissive nature of Casey’s life; be it his feminine sounding name, his small dog or that he only buys products with plain packaging and a content label.
This all changes for Casey when he begins to practice karate. Sensei instructs him to let go of the things that aren’t masculine and to embrace things like heavy metal and German things, because they show that someone is aggressive and powerful. The dojo begins to feel like a place of comfort for Casey, and his belt the source of his power. From midway the film moves between Casey’s ever-progressing personal life with his sessions at the dojo and sparring with other students, most notably Anna (Imogen Poots), the class’ only female attendant, who we meet teaching children how to do a choke-hold. While Anna’s presence as a woman is rarely discussed against that constant theme of toxic masculinity, she does bring a more relatable level to a film that is largely depicted in the most extreme contrasts of ‘man’ and ‘mouse’.
It is as Casey is climbing the ranks that the film takes a much more sinister turn as he learns about the private night classes Sensei runs for exclusive members. Like a karate-focused take on Fight Club these men let out their most primal urges, to both disturbing and amusing effect. Insecurities are exploited, bodies paraded and crimes most certainly committed. Sensei’s hold is powerful as the alpha and Stearn confidently purges himself of all critique of the all-American male. He does so walking along a fine line of black comedy and thriller with expert precision, handing Eisenberg an all-consuming and transformative role that lets us see him at his most wild. While The Art of Self Defense is loaded with critique about that ‘toxic masculinity’ buzzword that makes most men shake in their boots, Stearn handles the subject with just enough tongue-in-cheek bleak humour to quiz even the most sceptical of minds.
By Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of SQ. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends far too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here