Review: The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

The Art of Self-Defense has been one of the tougher films for me to crack. There’s something insidious about its presentation, a dizzying dive into toxic masculinity that pushes so hard into black comedy that it borders on surreal horror. In 2019 and most of cinema it seems entirely singular – but there is one specific classic that it mimics so closely that it feels imitative.

Accountant Casey Davies joins a karate dojo after being assaulted by a gang of bikers. What starts as a mere riff on his social awkwardness as he gets in over his head transforms into something else entirely as the dojo master, a white man who goes only by Sensei, takes him on as a pet project. Casey soon begins to define himself entirely by his place within the structure of this karate system. Jesse Eisenberg is in fine form as Casey, though he’s not exactly breaking new territory as an emasculated nerd.

What sells The Art of Self-Defense is how matter-of-factly it sells the absurdity. The characters operate within a certain brand of nightmare logic but go about their actions plainly. Violence runs rampant with little to no consequences. The whole experience is as if we’re watching modern people role play a martial arts film, engaging in battles of honor and masculinity after a day at the office. It’s altogether uncanny; the presentation suggests a familiar world yet the narrative is so alienating.

On its own, The Art of Self-Defense could have been a truly mesmerizing work. However, I figured out exactly what it was doing with nearly all of its plot beats well before anything really happened – not necessarily because it was playing its hand too openly but because of how obviously it was playing from the same book as that other film.

The Art of Self-Defense is Fight Club for a generation that can now immediately summarize all the concepts at play with the phrase ‘toxic masculinity.’ The flaw of Self-Defense is that it speaks in that language. We are always put on the outside of Casey’s story – these figures are meant to be ridiculed from their first appearance.

Fight Club worked because it recognized how inescapable these ideas are in certain men. It resonated due to how intimately it captured the experience of a man lost to that system, to the point that some fail to recognize it as a critique since it so perfectly captures their own experience with masculine expectations. With The Art of Self-Defense, it’s all too easy to view oneself as above any of the characters. They exist solely to be mocked.

Ultimately, I’m not certain what this film is actually saying. It goes through the motions of black comedy so well that I almost mistook the atmosphere for meaningful social commentary. Obviously, toxic masculinity is a real issue – perhaps the flaw is Imogen Poots as Anna, who is a wonderful character on her own but her presence blurs the message. Anna is as caught up in the system and, though the film makes sure to highlight some mistreatment on account of her gender, she seems just as devoted to all the same toxic behaviors as the rest.

I’m breaking the film down this way not because I think it is a bad film but quite the opposite – this is a work that borders on greatness and I feel the need to explain why it doesn’t quite land. Its atmospheric mastery created one of the most spellbinding experiences I’ve had at the movies this year, and the screenplay is comparably uproarious. This movie hits far harder than I expected.

As such, I would easily recommend The Art of Self-Defense. If you can get past the gripes I had, I can easily imagine this being among some people’s favorite films for the year. Riley Stearns certainly appears to be a director to keep our eyes on.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

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