It’s been twenty years since David Fincher’s Fight Club invited audiences to join its cult of shallow, suppressed, macho insecurity, but times have changed. Fight Club was a warning shot, offering a vision of the near future in which toxic masculinity eventually formed a cult of personality and become indistinguishable from a terrorist organization. And it’s that world in which The Art of Self-Defense resides. The Art of Self-Defense abandons the superficial artifice of pop brainwashing and instead portrays the world as it too often feels: lonely, quiet and completely devoid of purpose.
Written and directed by Riley Stearns, The Art of Self-Defense, is an unnerving, bold dark comedy set at the congested corner of toxic masculinity and violence. It stars Jesse Eisenberg as Casey, a mild-mannered accountant who is shunned by most of his co-workers and has no friends besides his pet dachshund. His tidy beige apartment speaks to a dully ordered existence, one that is viciously upended when he goes out for a walk one night and gets mugged and beaten by masked thugs on motorcycles. As he recovers from the assault, Casey considers buying a firearm. He instead thinks better of it and heads instead to a nearby dojo, where he dons a white belt and begins studying karate under a smoothly charismatic Sensei (a fantastic Alessandro Nivola), who sets up Casey with a little smile and tells him, “I’m really glad you’re here.” It’s a line that sounds both welcoming and faintly sinister.
Within the first few minutes Stearns makes it clear that Casey isn’t the only one in the movie whose dialogue will be intentionally stilted in a deadpan style. Every member of every class at the dojo sounds like a nerdy child, enthralled with their Sensei and thrilled about their the color-coded belt system. It’s also unclear exactly when the film is taking place, given the old-school answering machine in Casey’s apartment and the camcorder and VHS tapes that figure into the plot. (The production design by Charlotte Royer is immaculate with its muted interiors.) Much of the pleasure of The Art of Self-Defense comes from it sly derangement of a familiar dramatic template, the motivational get-in-shape movie. Karate experts can either take offense or delight in the way Stearns merges the rigors of martial arts with a controlled surrealism that becomes stranger and more menacing by the minute.
Imogen Poots plays Anna, one of Sensei’s pupils, who has infinitely more confidence than Casey but who has internalized so much of the dojo’s misogyny that she’s obviously dying from it. She’s trapped in a painful holding position, unable to find her self-worth without validation from Sensei and yet fully aware that she’s never going to get it. She’s convinced that if she works harder than any of the other students, he will finally have to respect her, despite all the evidence that she should already have it. The film knows that everybody within it is doing something wrong, that the characters — and by extension, the audience — can all feel like desperate losers seeking the approval of our peers and superiors.
The words “toxic masculinity” are never spoken, though they would be redundant in a movie where the Sensei articulates — maybe too precisely — his retrograde notions about how men and women are supposed to behave. As the Sensei, Casey and Anna are trapped in an eerie psychological triangle, The Art of Self-Defense becomes an unambiguous satire of chauvinistic cruelty and pure, motiveless bloodlust. Will Casey, once a victim of the culture, become one of its enforcers or one of its challengers?
The answer isn’t entirely clear at first, which is a good thing. With icy deadpan control, Stearns walks a thin line between the provocative and the preposterous, courting your shock as well as your laughter. As the shape of the story in the final stretch takes its turns, Eisenberg’s verbally and physically skillful performance never loses it unpredictable edge. Like any good marital artist, he knows just how to keep you off-balance. The Art of Self-Defense concludes with a shred of hope, funneled through a disturbingly cathartic climax, leaving us in a place where the exploitation of the lost and troubled persists oh-so deeply.