Masculinity is a prison. It forces boys and men to bury their feelings, and even hide their preferences. There are men out there, right now, who refuse to admit they want a cookie because they are worried baked goods will make them look weak. The Art of Self-Defense, the new dark comedy from writer and director Riley Stearns, explores this prison. It stars Jesse Eisenberg – in a role he was born to play – and convincingly creates a space where ordinary people tolerate brutal violence.
I interviewed Jesse Eisenberg while he was on a promotional tour for Now You See Me. I asked him what appealed to him about the film, and he said, “The part they asked me to play was the most confident stage performer in the world. He has an attitude as if he’s earned that place, so I thought this was the thing to get over the fear of me performing on stage.” As an actor who once had stage fright, Eisenberg’s character in The Art of Self-Defense is not a stretch.
His character, Casey, is mild-mannered and petrified, the sort of man who could be the textbook definition of “beta cuck.” After a random attack leaves him in the hospital, Casey finds himself in a karate class. His sensei (an unnerving Alessandro Nivola) is also mild-mannered, but he exudes all the confidence Casey lacks. Before long, Sensei’s influence affects all the facets of Jesse’s life.
There is a holistic approach to studying martial arts. Students do not just learn how to punch and kick; they also learn how to better themselves. You see this in films like The Karate Kid and even Sidekicks, but those films are different than this one because they have patient, responsible teachers who do not abuse their power. Sensei is nothing like Mr. Miyagi, and the film expertly shows why Casey might fall into his grip. There is a sense that Stearns, through Sensei, lays it on a little thick, such as a scene where Casey is told he must listen to heavy metal and learn German. The obviousness is the point: Sensei could have given Casey anything, and he would be obsessed by them. Eisenberg expertly transforms the character from a weakling into confident, violent man.
The look of the film is crucial to its effect. Stearns keeps the technology analog: there are no cell phones, for example, and when Casey decides to explore heavy metal, he buys a CD. Stearns insists in interviews and on social media he wants his film to be timeless, and while I understand what he’s saying, this film looks like it is set in the 1990s. That is a period where films like In the Company of Men and even Fight Club question traditional ideas of masculinity, so The Art of Self Defense continues in that tradition. One interesting reversal is how Stearns presents Anna (Imogen Poots), another karate student who is not anyone’s love interest. Instead, she is there to reflect the inherent faults in the dojo. While the film mostly follows Casey’s growth, there is a disturbing subplot that only that deepens its themes.
The Art of Self-Defense has the elegance and logic of a short story. By limiting the setting and characters, Casey’s arc has a sinister destiny to it. The end of the film is bleak, even exaggerated, and yet Stearns earns its surreal flourishes. The dojo is outside time and morality, and this unreal quality is what makes the film allegorical. It is funny, but only because of its specificity and point of view. Behind that comedy, however, is a warning about what happens ordinary men trust the wrong teachers.