Director Riley Stearns' strange and seething satire "The Art of Self-Defense" is a pitch black comedy for the modern era, coming at a time when our culture continues a long overdue conversation about identity, masculinity, and violence.
The film tells the story of milquetoast office worker Casey (Jesse Eisenberg). An awkward bundle of insecurities, Casey lives a rather drab existence. Residing in a nondescript apartment (which production designer Charlotte Royer layers with endless shades of brown and tan) in an anonymous city, he appears to have few friends and no social life to speak of. His co-workers completely ignore him at best, and at worst outright despise him. The only bright spot in his life is his beloved -- and adorable -- dachshund.
Then one night he's attacked at random, beaten and mugged by a band of masked thugs on motorcycles. The assault leaves him bruised, broken, and fearful of the world outside his apartment walls. Seeking a way to feel safe again he takes an exploratory trip to a gun shop, but it doesn't go as well as he'd hoped. Things seem hopeless until Casey happens upon a karate dojo run by the enigmatic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).
Charismatic and supremely confident, Sensei has very specific ideas of what it means to be a man. He preaches a take-what-you-want attitude, in which power belongs to the one who can punch the hardest. It's an ideology reflective of the alpha/beta worldview that a certain type of men still subscribe to. But Casey falls under its sway, submerging himself in this world of hypermasculinity with a fraternity of other male rejects.
The lone woman in this odd environment is Anna (a wonderful, ferocious Imogen Poots), a brown belt who teaches children's karate class. Considering his beliefs about men, it's perhaps not surprising to learn that Sensei also has some fairly misogynistic beliefs about what it means to be a woman too. He treats Anna with contempt, seeing her as biologically inferior. And Anna for her part has internalized so much of his teachings that even as she rages at her gendered treatment, she still finds herself craving his validation.
Casey doesn't necessarily subscribe to Sensei's feelings about women, but the ritualistic nature of Sensei's brand of instruction appeals to him. He seems to be the answer Casey's been searching for, offering some place to channel all the pain and frustration he's been feeling.
His loneliness and insecurity lead him to desperately cling to a group where he finally feels like he belongs. He's been afraid for so long that he believes the answer is to become that which he fears. Casey works his way up to yellow belt with remarkable speed, and Sensei soon extends him an invitation to the exclusive night class, where things take an even darker turn. Even as things get progressively stranger, there's a sense of inevitability to the ultimate destination of this story.
The film seems likely to earn the ire of those who actually practice the art of karate, though the unorthodox methods of Nivola's character suggest fairly early on that this is clearly not a properly accredited and sanctioned dojo. Riley isn't interested in presenting a realistic portrayal, but rather using that world to explore the underlying ideas of manhood.
"The Art of Self-Defense" is just one of a recent spat of films that probe the idea of masculinity, including most recently the sunny horror film "Midsommar." And much like that film, it also functions as an examination of both the danger and the appeal of cults. That subject was also the focus of Stearns' previous film "Faults," and it's one that clearly interests the director. His films have a curiosity about how and why people might willingly fall under their sway.
The filmmaker invests the story with the dark, deadpan humor of a Yorgos Lanthimos joint. Like that Greek director, Sterns' characters talk in full declarative sentence, bluntly speaking their minds with little regard for how their words will be received. And that droll comedy finds its punctuation with bursts of graphic, brutal violence.
Peculiarly, the film is ambiguous about the time period in which it's set. It's filled with analog technology: VCRs, clunky camcorders and large, boxy answering machines. When Casey steals a nudie magazine from a co-worker, he has to photocopy its pages to look at when he gets back home. That ambiguity is an interesting choice visually, but combined with the arch tone, the lack of specificity has the effect of dulling the impact of its satire.
But there's still plenty of bite to the film. "The Art of Self-Defense" digs into the bubbling anger that forces a person to cling to an identity forged in aggression and violence; where domination is a methodology for living. In the end, the film's truly at its best when it makes its laughs hurt.