‘The Art Of Self-Defense’ Takes a Chop at Toxic Masculinity
At its core, The Art of Self-Defense is a film about masculine identity. The femininely named Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) leads an isolated life of social awkwardness, ridicule, and submission. At his boring accounting job, the other men in the office carry on unrelatable power fantasy conversations. At home, Casey only receives phone calls from his boss and affection for his unbelievably adorable dachshund.
THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Riley Stearns
Written by: Riley Stearns
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
Running time: 104 min
When Casey finds his beta male life turned upside-down by a violent run-in with an alpha motorcycle gang, he turns to the only true solution for the fearful American. A gun! But in the waiting period to receive his firearm, Casey accidentally stumbles upon a karate dojo, falling in love with its mantras and disciplines.
He officially joins the daytime karate class under the encouragement of its sensei named Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Meanwhile, Casey still struggles to conquer his non-confrontational nature and his fear of going out at night. “I want to be what intimidates me,” he admits to Sensei.
The subtle dark comedy of the film becomes more obvious at this point. It veers more towards the dojo of Yorgos Lanthimos, with deadpan absurdist declarations in contrast with some escalating violence.
Casey forces masculinity into his life at Sensei’s instruction. He trades adult contemporary music for heavy metal, French instructional tapes for German, and the dachshund for a big hound. He doubles down his investment in becoming a man’s man by surrendering his lifestyle completely to men who put a lot of stock in what color they drape around their waists.
For all their insistence that they’re above those who choose guns over fists for their violence, it becomes quite clear that there’s something sinister mixed up in all of the propriety of this dojo, and it comes at the expense of perfectly normal people like Casey. He finds friendship with the perpetually next-in-line to be a black belt Anna (Imogen Poots), who shines much light on the hypocritical dealings of Sensei and the ways he’s repeatedly marginalized her.
The journey towards emerging from a fearful existence for Casey goes a bit off the rails, but it’s in the service of a clear message from writer/director Riley Stearns. He presents a case for dismantling toxic masculinity from within the structures that perpetuate it. Fight fire with fire. And while it’s never really enough, if you’re in a position to do so, the least you can do is make sure the women around you are getting their due.
With films like The Art Of Self-Defense, which place violence front and center satirically you have to worry about people taking it at face value and missing the point, (I’m looking at you, Fight Club). But it sticks the landing well enough that I doubt we’ll see incels and red-pillers hanging posters for this one on their walls. At the very least, it will go down as a film with the discipline and skills to punch with a foot and kick with a fist.