The Art of Self-Defense: Slight Club, by David Bax
It’s not entirely clear why director Riley Stearns chose to set his new movie, The Art of Self-Defense, during some unspecified stretch of the 1990s. Maybe, by having the film’s events take place before the release of Fight Club, he hoped to avoid the comparison. But it’s more likely that, as with certain other elements of the movie, it’s simply an arch affectation that gets in the way of Stearns’ most potent and pertinent ambitions.
Jesse Eisenbergs stars as Casey, a milksop office worker and loner who suffers a severe and random beating one night while walking home from buying dog food. After considering purchasing a firearm, he instead decides to enroll in karate classes in order to rebuild his shattered self-confidence. This brings him into the orbit of Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who runs his classes like some tiny cult leader, handing out new belt colors to his favorites and inviting only a select few, like Imogen Poots’ Anna, to join his secretive, elite “night classes.”
Eisenberg’s confident performance speaks volumes about Casey’s state of mind. Though meek to begin with, his post-traumatic psyche is noticeably more cowed and unstable.
That makes him the perfect mark for Sensei’s line of self-actualizing bullshit. More than a study of toxic masculinity, The Art of Self-Defense is a surprisingly nuanced examination of how angry young men can be radicalized by bad-acting, outside influences who prey on their insecurities. Sensei, taking the reins over more than just Casey’s karate lessons, instructs his new student, “From now on, you listen to metal. It’s the toughest music there is.” The line is one of the funniest in the movie (along with a running joke about punching with your feet) but it also lays bare just how superficial and performative most of our cultural ideals of masculinity actually are.
The Art of Self-Defense often appears to take place in an alternate reality (more on that later) but one way in which it feels more real than 90% of modern movies is its acknowledgment of the need for money to live in this world. None of the characters is rich; in fact, financial problems constantly threaten to knock them off their paths. Casey’s increasingly poor job performance after the attack puts his employment at risk. And Sensei, with no head for numbers, makes clear that there are low margins in the dojo business. This economic throughline is refreshingly clearheaded and cognizant of the knots into which ideology and commerce tie themselves in our societal ether.
Yet, with all these things to recommend it, the movie is finally an exhausting affair. In directing his entire cast to speak in the same dry, staccato, unmodulated tone of voice, Stearns is as exacting a taskmaster as Sensei himself (this may, in fact, be the point but it doesn’t make the choice any less grating). With plenty of sharp dialogue and a talented cast (including very funny small turns from Davey Johnson and friend of Battleship Pretension Josh Fadem), The Art of Self-Defense didn’t need any extra layers of sweaty, self-conscious quirk to push it over the top. Instead, they smother it.