The Art of Self-Defensetells the story of timid bookkeeper Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a timid bookkeeper who joins a local karate studio to learn how to protect himselfafter he’s beaten mercilessly one night by a roving motorcycle gang. Under the watchful eye of a charismatic instructor, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and hardcore brown belt Anna (Imogen Poots), Casey begins to experience inner strength for the first time in his life. However, as Sensei’s increasingly bizarre (and violent) lessons continue to develop, he soon discovers what it means to be trapped in a world of hyper-masculinity and violence. As a result, Casey’s growing concerns begin to place him increasingly at odds with his new mentor and he must decide for himself where the boundaries of true strength lie.
Written and directed by Riley Stearns, The Art of Self-Defense is an excellent example of modern satire for the #MeToo era. Awkwardly hilarious and terrifying at the same time, Stearns journey into the soul of toxic masculinity showcases the complex challenges of modern gender identity issues. Tightly written and executed, Stearns’ film is unflinching in its desire to draw you into this world without becoming comfortable. Something is off… and the audience is well aware of it. Star Eisenberg shines as the socially-stunted Casey, portraying him with an innocence held in constant conflict with his inner rage. Adding to the tension is Nivola’s maniacal Sensei, who provides the necessary level of angst against Casey’s harmless heart. On several occasions, it almost appears as though Sensei is casting a spell on the hapless Casey, a testament to the chemistry between the two actors.
Whereas numerous films in recent years have explored the dynamics of sexual power through the eyes of a female, Self-Defense sets itself apart by examining the tensions of gender from a distinctly male perspective. A victim of bullying in every facet of his life, Casey appears completely unaware of what it means to ‘be a man’ in today’s culture. From photocopying pornography to purchasing a firearm, Casey is looking for something—anything—that might give him a deeper sense of strength in an uber-masculine environment. Herein lies the appeal of his relationship with Sensei. What begins as a simple class teaching how to protect himself becomes a mentorship on domineering masculinity. Suddenly, Casey begins to transform himself from ‘adult contemporary’ to ‘metal’, not only in his musical taste but also his approach to life and work. This is a ‘man’s world’ and only those who adhere to the ‘rules’ will survive. (This truth is reinforced by the muted power of Anna, a female student who Sensei believes will never achieve greatness simply because ‘she’s not a man’.)
In doing so, however, Self-Defense shines an intense spotlight on what happens when the needle is pushed too far in the other direction as well. Is masculinity based upon one’s ability to create chaos and violence? Or is there something intrinsic to courage and strength that leans away from a desire to do harm? These are the questions facing Casey as he attempts to navigate himself through a dangerous world. Similar to the questions facing women following #MeToo, Self-Defense invites men to ask what it truly means to identify as genuinely powerful in toxic times.
With a biting tongue and sharp wit, The Art of Self-Defense is a dark but fascinating satire for a culture that remains in search of what it means to express one’s gender. Writer/director Stearns attacks his film with a ferocity that both entertains and opens the door for genuine conversation surrounding the nature of toxic masculinity. Making good use of a talented cast, Self-Defense is definitely a class worth taking.
To hear audio of our interview with Jesse Eisenberg, click here.
The Art of Self-Defensebegins its classes in theatres on July 19th, 2019