You probably think you can kick Jesse Eisenberg’s ass. Which makes him perfectly cast as the protagonist of The Art of Self-Defense, a dark comedy exploring the allure and dangers of toxic masculinity. Writer/director Riley Stearns applies a crisp and dark sense of humor to a low-key thriller about one man’s quest to become the thing that scares him most: a man’s man.
Casey Davies (Eisenberg) is a nebbish, lonely loser who is almost cripplingly intimidated by other men. He sees his every failing as one of masculinity, or lack thereof. He’s a pushover who shrinks from confrontation, cries in his car, and spends his nights with a puny (though charming) dachshund. His is a life of quiet, aching desperation, until it gets worse. After being ambushed, mugged, and savagely beaten by a masked gang of bikers, Casey is determined to change. So he turns to kung fu and the dubious lessons of the local Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).
Entering into the dojo, Casey is instantly enchanted by the muscular men who are strong and confident in their movements, by the rules on the wall that dictate decorum (and no shoes on the mat), and by the pretty but stern instructor Anna (Imogen Poots). But most of all, he is enchanted by Sensei, whose black belt and steely machismo promises the secrets to a masculinity Casey believes will save him from pain, isolation, and self-doubt. And indeed, the dojo offers Casey an instant injection of self-esteem, a purpose, and a community. But the deeper he gets into Sensei’s dubious order, the more disturbing his behavior and revelations will be.
The Art of Self-Defense is basically Fight Club stripped of all the rock n’ roll allure that made it wildly misunderstood by those who fell for Tyler Durden’s patter. (Space monkeys, all of them.) You won’t mistake Sensei for an enviably cool role model, because Stearns paints him from the start as a posturing weirdo. Nivola (a long underrated character actor who memorably played Nic Cage’s squirrelly brother Pollux Troy in Face/Off) brings an edge of lunacy to Sensei’s smirking bravado. Declaring that karate is a form of communication, he answers a question about his weekend plans by essentially doing an interpretive dance as he haltingly explains he will rent a movie to watch at home. This answer is far from impressive. The tie to his karate moves is specious at best. But to Casey, who is starving to achieve even a fraction of Sensei’s confidence, the impact is more powerful that a kick to the chest. Which he’ll also receive in this dojo. And that’s just the start.
Stearns’ script will spin into intrigue as Casey is urged into questionable acts and confronted by unexpected tragedy. I’d hesitate to say there are any twists, because the plot’s big reveals are pretty obvious from the start. But mystery is not the point of The Art of Self-Defense. We are meant to see the con early on, because the true horror of this dark comedy is watching a “nice guy” so easily molded into a violent, selfish stooge of toxic masculinity. Afraid of being pushed around or ignored by stronger men, Casey sought to become them. Some changes seem superficial, even silly. He stops listening to Adult Contemporary music and takes Sensei’s direction to listen to Metal. He wears his yellow belt all the time, not just at the dojo. He picks fights with little prompting. However, Stearns largely steers away from having Casey’s toxic masculinity bleed into misogyny. But that exploration will be made through Anna’s treatment by the rest of the dojo, who openly regards the brown-belt student as a failure because–as Sensei puts it–“her being a woman will forever prevent her from becoming a man.”
In keeping with the suffocating rules of toxic masculinity, the characters in the film speak with muted emotion and a ruthless efficiency, hushed and fast. As Casey gets deeper into his training, he begins to sound like a robot as he swiftly and remorselessly explains to a co-worker why he punched them in the throat without warning. This is the kind of bone-dry humor Stearns crafts in his cutting comedy. The almost monotone vocal performance of his stars is in sharp contrast to their outlandishly violent behaviors and absurd eccentricities. The comical coldness of the world around them is reflected in a gun shop owner that casually unspools harrowing statistics about gun violence or the voicemail box that announces in an annoyed tone, “No one else left you a message.” Essentially, Stearns aims to find the humor in the dehumanizing. And while I get what he’s going for and admire his efforts, I didn’t actually find his movie funny.
Your mileage may vary when it comes to the bone-dry comedy at play in The Art of Self-Defense. As other critics had heralded it as hilarious, perhaps my hopes were too high going in. But I think it’s more that I struggle to chuckle at megalomaniacal violent men obsessed with their own power. It doesn’t feel like a fun or funny escape to watch a lonely young man quickly transformed into a domestic terror, or to see a smooth-taking macho man con fools out of their money and morals. It feels more like watching the news.
The Art of Self-Defense made its Quebec Premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival on July 11. It’s now in theaters in the US.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com