Written and Directed by Riley Stearns | 104 mins
“Never hold back. Not ever. It’ll only make you weak, and you can’t be weak anymore. Not in the night classes.” This is the lesson Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) learns explicitly from the only woman in his karate dojo, Anna (Imogen Poots), and implicitly from his Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).
Casey is a meek, 35-year-old dachshund owner and accountant. He started taking karate because he was mugged. He maybe deserved to be mugged. He has a lot to learn about being a man, including to kick with his fist and punch with his foot.
Stearns’ bone-dry satire is maybe the funniest deconstruction of masculine tropes since Fight Club, and if there’s any justice in the world it won’t be taken as literally as that picture was, nor earn the kind of fan that espouses the very thing the David Fincher picture was making fun of. Seems unlikely as The Art of Self-Defence is laugh-out-loud funny once you tune into its peculiar perspective, and while it’s skewering you with its dark, sometimes disturbing plot developments, it’s also schooling its audience on the ways in which we’re too often looking for a leader to take responsibility, and willing to give in to authority in order to feel like we belong.
Eisenberg seems uniquely qualified to play someone afraid of the world around him—he oozes anxiety, and apologizes repeatedly to his dog. But, when he discovers karate it awakens something in him, and he devotes all his time to this new discipline, even to exception of his job for better and frequently worse.
But it’s Nivola who nabs the MVP here—his Sensei needs to be a perfectly balanced charismatic antagonist for this to work. He has to be appealing and attractive, but also possibly a psychopath. His manipulations are of the audience as well—we’re regularly caught wondering what he’s planning. Nivola has been doing exceptional work for years in supporting roles in films as different as Junebug and Disobedience. It would be great to see him get more recognition from projects like this one, which is bound to earn a cult in the years to come.
The Art of Self-Defence plays one night only at Carbon Arc Cinema on Friday, October 11, 2019. For more information, and tickets, go here.