Casey is a man, but he does not feel like one. He is scared of everything and lacks any confidence in himself. One night, walking home after buying food for his dog, he is savagely beaten by a motorcycle gang. His first thought upon recovering is to buy a gun. However, he then wanders into a karate class and sees the exact type of person he wants to be. The sensei, who has very aggressive ideas about what a man should be, agrees to take him on as a student, drawing Casey into a bizarre and violent world as he attempts to transform himself into a real man.
The Art of Self-Defense is a dark comedy perfectly suited for our times. It is a brutal satire on toxic masculinity and cultural gender roles. It is funny, disturbing and thought-provoking. It is also uncompromising and not always entirely successful at making its points. Writer/director Riley Stearns had something he wanted to say. While it goes off the rails a bit toward the end, he made sure to say it. This is one movie that is going to be quite difficult to get out of my mind.
Casey is weak, terrified of other men and timid in the face of just about everything. Sensei is strong, confident and gets genuine pleasure out of spouting his nonsense philosophies to his eager students. It is easy to see how someone like Casey, who is ashamed of himself, would be enamored with someone who is his complete opposite.
Of course, being a satire, Sensei is an intentionally exaggerated macho caricature. To him, being a man means being physically dominant and hiding your emotions. The point is men have been taught from an early age that only certain things fit under the heading of “manly.” If you do not fit those definitions then, by default, you are not a man. That can be a very confusing thing to deal with. The Art of Self-Defense presents viewers with two extremes: the man who does not feel masculine at all and the man who feels superior because he exclusively represents masculine stereotypes.
There is one woman in this world. She is Anna, a brown belt in Sensei’s dojo. She is better than all his male students yet, since she is a woman, she knows he will never accept her as a man. She is inherently less than. This is not a subtle movie. Sensei is the patriarchy and Anna is the more deserving woman passed over due to her gender. Casey is trapped in the middle: he is infatuated with becoming what Sensei represents, but baffled as to why Anna is not more respected.
Casey is played by Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg tends to play characters who are fast-talking and arrogant. Casey is far from either of those things. He is quiet and controlled by his fear. Despite how odd the world of the dojo is, Eisenberg makes Casey’s decision to join seem realistic. The way karate makes him feel is the most important part of this journey. Eisenberg constantly keeps that on the surface without downplaying how smart he is. As Sensei, Alessandro Nivola is a violent bully who uses his position to disguise his lack of intelligence. Nivola’s strength in the role is delivering absurd dialogue as though it is profound. His speeches are funny because they are ridiculous and terrifying because of the conviction he brings to them, as well as how his students eat up every word. Imogen Poots’ Anna is mostly there for what she symbolizes. It is interesting, in a movie taking shots at toxic masculinity, the lone female character is still relegated to bystander.
The Art of Self-Defense (100 minutes without the end credits) presents the problem (men who display their manliness in destructive ways) and the victims (women held back because they are women), then throws Casey in as the “weaker” man captivated by dangerous ideals. However, it is unclear what Stearns is saying with his conclusion. He sets up the patriarchy, who it is holding down and why, though I am unsure if the ending is explaining how to tear it down or showing how our attempts to fight it only perpetuate it in different ways. This is a challenging movie; entertaining, flawed and meaningful, even if it does not always work.
3½ out of 5
Jesse Eisenberg as Casey
Alessandro Nivola as Sensei
Imogen Poots as Anna
Directed and Written by Riley Stearns