Jesse Eisenberg has made a name for himself playing tightly wound, neurotic types, from future media moguls (as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network) to unsuspecting zombie fighters (as Columbus in Zombieland and its forthcoming sequel). As a paranoid, ruthless tech entrepreneur in the mostly forgotten The Hummingbird Project, he buzzed around with an intensity no one else in that stacked cast (Alexander Skarsgard, Selma Hayek, etc.) could quite match.
Starring in The Art of Self-Defense, the second feature from writer/director Riley Stearns, Eisenberg channels that nervous energy into Casey, an anxious, timid bookkeeper who’s too scared of the world to ever really have much of an impact on it. When he’s the victim of a violent attack one night by a rogue motorcycle gang (our first indicator that Stearns isn’t afraid of going there), Casey decides something has to change in his life. He finds himself signing up for karate classes at a local dojo, a studio overseen by the creepily charismatic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) who demands a no-questions-asked loyalty from all his students, the kids right on up to the black belts. His right hand is star student Anna (Imogen Poots), who is the only woman in the adult class and kicks circles around her male counterparts.
Casey is infatuated with this new hyper-masculine world he’s discovered. He gets a new, bigger dog who he refuses to coddle. He finds such strength and confidence in his burgeoning skills that he wears his karate belt with street clothes, to work and on daily errands. It all offers a sense of control Casey’s never really had, and as he finds a place to thrive in the dojo, he’s a bit drunk on all of it. Up until now, Stearns is having fun establishing Casey’s new world and the characters within it. Everyone is a bit extra, as the kids say, from the staccato, sometimes emotionless dialogue to their slightly askew sense of humor. We’re in the hall of mirrors, to be sure, but the reflection of the world we’re seeing thus far is distorted just here and there, still generally recognizable.
It’s only as Casey becomes more enmeshed in the dojo that things get really weird, in intense and intelligent ways that establish The Art of Self-Defense for what it is: a sharp satire on tribalism, toxic masculinity and group think. Having proven himself in his daytime classes, Casey is invited to join the prestigious and secretive night classes, where he’s inducted into a sort of violent fraternity that sees the weak of the world as liabilities to their own existence, liabilities that must be dealt with. The way Stearns ties all of this together, from Casey’s own experience to the “extracurricular” activities of this macho group, is a bit convenient but it works.
If you stick with the narrative till the end, through all the seemingly random left turns and often uncomfortable absurdities, Stearns does something many filmmakers are often too timid to attempt: he raises the stakes to the point of no return: we’ve got no choice but to burn it all down and watch the fireworks that result. The concept of masculinity itself is skewered so thoroughly you’ll walk out wondering what the world needs such a construct for at all; it clearly leads to not much good in the end, making fools of those who stake their identity on it. What’s more, all this is managed while keeping the whole affair entertaining, thanks to strong performances by Eisenberg and crew and a strong does of biting self-awareness.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!