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The Art of Self-Defense – Movie Review

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The Art of Self-Defense – Movie Review

Rating: B+ (Very Good)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Pacific Northwest Pictures

Watching The Art of Self-Defense, comparisons to Fight Club are probably a little inevitable as both deal with a white-collar worker who ends up part of a violent organisation and his behaviour is negatively affected as a result. Both films also serve as direct criticisms on the concept of toxic masculinity. Even with the obvious similarities, director/writer Riley Stearns crafts an intriguing dark comedy that takes some surprising turns, as we watch Jesse Eisenberg become more entangled in this strange dojo and its cultish leader. It ultimately becomes a clever twist on the familiar Karate Kid story and how meekness isn’t a bad virtue to have.

The movie’s strange sense of humour is established early on in a restaurant scene that also introduces us to Eisenberg’s central protagonist Casey. The first fifteen or so minutes tells us just enough to understand Casey and his place in the world, thus making it believable he would take the leap of joining the dojo. Eisenberg properly portrays Casey’s lack of self-esteem, but there’s still a sympathetic element as he attempts to live his life the best way possible. His acting works very well in contrast to the more alpha male attributes portrayed by Alessandro Nivola as the lead karate instructor. Imogen Poots also shines as a fellow teacher, bringing a fitting deadpan quality to the role.

Stearns films the dojo in a way that feels cold and detached from the outside world, which creates an appropriate sense of this place not being normal. As the film plays on, the sense of toxic masculinity becomes more evident. Stearns effectively alternates between portraying this element of the film as either over-the-top or frightening. The Art of Self-Defense does not shy away from the violence and the chauvinistic elements being perpetuated by this culture. Eisenberg is particularly good at showing how he gets more involved with that world and the way in which Casey’s personality slowly shifts. Stearns creates an uncomfortable feeling and a sense of dread of what might happen next.

One curious creative choice made by Stearns is the decision to set The Art of Self-Defense in the ‘90s. It doesn’t have too large an effect on the story, but it does give the film a certain visual appearance that makes one remember how gray the architecture was back then. Stearns doesn’t call too much attention to the period setting, but merely makes it something the viewer eventually starts to realise during the early scenes. There are a fair amount of twists and turns involving character decisions that do work in surprising the audience and feel earned, because of everything we know about their personalities beforehand.

The social commentary on toxic masculinity is appreciated, but The Art of Self-Defense employs other filmmaking elements that turn it into a worthwhile film. Best of all, Riley Stearns has assembled a strong cast of actors with Eisenberg, Nivola and Poots delivering commendable work. The movie touches on necessary issues with a deadpan and dark sense of humour that works in creating an uncomfortable reaction. The movie doesn’t flinch in its story decisions and where it chooses to take the characters. Many will certainly compare the themes presented to the ones in Fight Club, but the film thankfully succeeds on its own unique qualities.

Stefan Ellison

Stefan Ellison