“The Art of Self-Defense” is a film that was so close to the film I wanted. If you like black comedies and thrillers, chances are you will enjoy this film. This film is good, the cast is great, the writing and plot structure is solid. Most of the issues I have are with the larger world the story takes place in and how consequences are expressed. This a film that should have been longer given how much I found went unexplained. Before I get into spoilers though, I definitely recommend it.
The film was written and directed by Riley Stearns. This is the first film I’ve seen him do, so I hope he makes more.
The story follows Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) who after being attacked and nearly killed by bikers joins a Karate Dojo in order to learn self-defense. He soon learns all is not as it appears as he transforms under the tutelage of the Sensei.
Casey’s Arc – Casey’s story is strong. You have a guy who is afraid and at one point doesn’t even want to leave his house after he is nearly killed by a group of mysterious bikers. After he joins the Dojo he improves from Sensei in that he stands up for himself and starts to finally form connections with others. Where it falls apart is that his Sensei is a fanatic and his whole philosophy is based on dominance and destruction over others. Casey loses his job because he punches his boss in an asserting his dominance and Sensei uses this to make him his accountant at the dojo. When Casey realizes this and that Sensei was the one who had beat him up in the first place he gets revenge and finally changes the dojo. Jesse Eisenberg is wonderful in this role as the character he plays is anti-social and it is only among the other anti-social people of the dojo that he finds friends. Anna is his ally in the dojo and after learning her story and seeing how she saved his life when Sensei and the motorcycle gang almost killed him, he makes her Sensei after killing the prior one with a gun.
Toxic Masculinity – The main theme running through the story is that of toxic masculinity. Sensei believes that everything should be masculine and that masculine things are the only things men should like. This is expressed in that he believes in not just as martial arts as the only way to truly fight but also that heavy metal music, choosing to start fights and make others like you or destroying them and that women aren’t capable of this and are weaker in all things (she is up to brown belt but will never be black belt even though she is the strongest person in the dojo). This is all in reaction to the loss of his wife and him abandoning his “feminine” name.
Unfocused on the World Being Personal or Large – The main con in this film is that there is a larger story going on in the sidelines that never truly becomes part of the main narrative. Casey kills an undercover cop for the dojo but there aren’t any consequences for it. The dojo is so impenetrable from consequences outside of it that it comes off as unrealistic. This unfocus also related to the theme of the film in toxic masculinity. I wish the story had been told through Anna’s eyes, because it is through Casey’s we only get see so much of the ideology of Sensei and because he is new we don’t see why the others follow him so mindlessly. Why does Anna stay? These are all things I wanted to know that should’ve been fleshed out. There needed to be more reasons for motivations and beliefs beyond Sensei’s.
This is a solidly great film. The writing is sharp and the story flows. If the problem of consequences and it either staying focused on the small world of the dojo or truly making the world feel large the problem would have been solved. In the end scale is really what kept the film from landing higher on the list. I definitely recommend this film. It won’t make my Top 5 at the end of the year but I can’t wait to see what this director does next.
Final Score: 9 / 10