THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Riley Stearns

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots.

Alessandro Nivola and Jesse Eisenberg in The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

Casey Davies (played by Jesse Eisenberg, from The Social Network, etc) is a shy, introverted, boring and nervous thirtysomething who works as an accountant. His life is very insular – he doesn’t really interact with his co-workers, and he spends most of his time alone in his house with only his dog for company. Then one night while returning from the local convenience store with a supply of dog food he is set upon by a group of bikies and beaten senseless. When he recovers he finds it hard to return to work, despite the pleas of his boss. Left physically and emotionally scarred by the attack Casey is afraid of the dark, afraid of shadows, and even afraid of other men.

He initially decides to buy a handgun for protection. But then he discovers a karate school in a strip mall shopfront and, curious, he checks it out. The dojo is run by the enigmatic and controlling sensei (Alessandro Nivola, from American Hustle, etc) who seems to incorporate karate into every aspect of everyday life. He believes that people who use guns are weak. He encourages Casey to join, and then he seems to focus a lot of his attention on Casey. There is also Anna (Imogen Poots, who appeared opposite Eisenberg in the sci-fi drama Vivarium)), the sole female in the class, who also teaches the kid’s classes. Mentored by sensei, Casey slowly grows in confidence.

When he is promoted to a yellow belt he is permitted to join the exclusive night class. There he discovers a darker side to the school and the martial arts and the disturbing truth about the sensei.

The Art Of Self-Defense is the sophomore feature from writer/director Riley Stearns (Faults). This is a subversive and offbeat black comedy with some grim undertones, and it explores themes of toxic masculinity, sexism, ingrained misogyny, violence, fear, and even serves up a brief critique of America’s gun culture. Fight Club is an obvious influence on the look and feel of the film, although there is also a touch of The Karate Kid here as well.

Cinematographer Michael Ragen (who also shot Stearns’ previous film Faults) has shot the film using a stylised and muted colour palette that effectively enhances its unsettling and slightly sinister tone. However, the intriguing scenario about a timid young man rediscovering himself loses the plot with a wayward third act.

Eisenberg is well cast here; he has built a career on playing the nervous, insecure, socially awkward, self-conscious, fast talking and often self-loathing nerdy type, and the role of Casey fits him perfectly. He infuses the character with many of his usual mannerisms and quirky touches and deadpan delivery. Nivola brings a quirky charm and quietly menacing quality to his role as the bullying sensei who despises any hint of weakness.

The Art Of Self-Defense is a quirky and unsettling black comedy, but it is not a film for everybody. Stearns establishes an usual almost surreal rhythm, and its offbeat and droll sense of humour takes some getting used to, but those attuned to his offbeat sensibility will enjoy the film. A potential cult favourite, The Art Of Self-Defense will certainly do well on the festival circuit.

★★☆

The Art Of Self-Defense screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2019, and is now available on FOXTEL and Amazon and streaming services.

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