It’s apparent from the get-go that The Art of Self-Defense isn’t trying to put a spotlight on the real world as we see it. Writer-director Riley Stearns, for his second feature, channels the likes of Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite) and Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York) in terms of tone, but he’s really telling a story one would find in the martial arts films of old. The twist, however, is that it’s set in contemporary, non-glamorous America (the film was shot in Kentucky).The story follows Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a meek accountant who, after a brutal mugging by a motorcycle gang, takes up karate classes with the unnamed local Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). The classes are intense not so much because of their content, but because of the instructor who seems picked right out of a Bruce Lee film. Casey lets it go to his head, wearing his small ascension to yellow belt proudly, and slowly falling under his Sensei’s spell thanks to the minor amount of power and gratification the classes give him.
The way characters speak in Stearns’ script might take getting used to for some, as Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, playing Anna, his lone female classmate, state emotions and motivations plainly and directly, with little more emotion than the basic characterizations and personality quirks defined in their first scenes. But simple is exactly what Stearns is going for. The film’s dryness is pertinent for its specific sense of humor to land. Not unlike Office Space or The Lobster, The Art of Self-Defense uses the miniscule satisfaction of nonsense achievements, such as advancing to yellow belt in your 30s, to satirize the smallness of everyday life.
It helps that Nivola perfectly nails the Sensei’s over-the-top demeanor, cutting through Stearns’ appropriately low-key scene construction with some absolutely hilarious, self-serious nonsense (he at one point states in monotone, without a hint of irony, that he stuck his index finger through his former master’s forehead). His purpose to the story, however, is also to show us why Stearns chose to tell this story in 2019. As the Sensei gets more and more involved in Casey’s personal life, he’s encouraging every facet to be masculine to the extreme. And so, Casey starts rocking out to heavy metal, refuses to pet and coddle his dog, and shouts at his coworkers to do push-ups with him. At the same time, Anna, clearly top of the class, is continually denied a deserved ascension to black belt because, as her Sensei says, women are naturally weaker than men.
This makes The Art of Self-Defense a critique on toxic masculinity stated as plainly as it could possibly be stated, practically designed to provoke those who subscribe. Once that becomes clear, the setting and overall plot start to feel more introspective. The twists and turns that follow are straight out of a kung fu movie, with betrayals, challenges, and blood all there for one purpose: making the men feel like men. But what Casey can’t see that Anna can, at least partially, is how all this purported strength actually makes them weak. Again, these are middle-aged men in contemporary Middle America, not the samurai of feudal Japan.
And yet, Stearns’ script states its themes so upfront that the film doesn’t leave a whole lot to chew on once it’s over. The Art of Self-Defense at its root is a story about the dangers of a violent mindset, primarily those typically associated with men. In today’s world, there’s a lot to say about that, but Stearns stops just short of saying something new. Instead, he repeats points made before in as creative and entertaining a way as he can muster.
There are so many precise little comedic details, such as the pointed set decoration in Casey’s home and the Sensei’s dojo, that help realize Stearns’ vision fully. Eisenberg proves to be a serviceable lead to guide us through that vision, but really it’s Poots and Nivola who wind up most realizing the film’s unique personality. Still, the film’s undeniable originality comes from the mind of Stearns. His hilarious, and occasionally quite tense, critique of the notion that physical strength and power are intrinsically linked in today’s world boasts a brutal honesty few filmmakers would dare dive into.