The Art of Self Defense (2019), written and directed by Riley Stearns, is an American drama with a hint of dark humor. It stars Jesse Eisenberg (Casey Davies), Imogen Poots (Anna), and Alessandro Nivola (Sensei). It’s the story of a mild-mannered, 35-year-old, pet-loving owner, Casey Davies, who following a gratuitous violent attack by a motorcycle gang takes up karate as a means to protect himself from physical assaults. The film dramatizes Casey’s victimization at the hands of a motorcycle gang, “toxic masculinity incarnate”, and his psychic and physical journey to become what he fears to regain control of his world.
The narrative of the crime is juxtaposed against the protagonist’s backstory and journey. Getting a gun becomes an option but then it doesn’t. The film narrates his journey to self-redemption. Stearns weaves together many visual elements to create a compelling film. He juxtaposes the narrative of Casey’s journey against the simmering tensions amongst the characters and the reveals to fuel the dramatic tension in the film. Eisenberg and Nivola have chemistry and are interesting to watch as they play off each other. Nivola’s physicality and delivery as the Karate Sensei is mesmerizing to watch. Eisenberg is superbly cast as the quirky and awkward weakling who in his quest to become what he fears becomes drawn into the world and the spell of his Karate Sensei. Eisenberg gives a nuanced performance as the sympathetic, aggrieved anti-hero reclaiming his masculinity as a means to recover his dignity and self-worth and in the process throwing caution to the wind. Nivola and Eisenberg both shine in their roles and are very convincing and believable. A warning; some of the scenes in the film are difficult to watch.
The film is full of twists and turns which also fuel the narrative and adds to the dramatic tension. The motif of the underdog and idealistic dreamer run through the film and stitches the narrative into a cohesive structure. Casey’s changing relationship to his dog on a physical and emotional level also stitch the narrative into a cohesive structure and whose death is the catalyst to bring things to a head. It’s an emotional riveting film that draws you into Casey’s narrative since he embodies many of the attributes of a politically correct individual and presents as the proverbial “nice guy” who is sucked into another manifestation of toxic masculinity despite it being dressed up as the art of self-defense.
Casey is a victim of toxic masculinity as embodied in the motorcycle gang who acted out their aggression on a defenseless man. Acts of violence have become a natural occurring tragedy that is now part and parcel of the landscape of post-modern society and takes on many manifestations including school bullying, hazing, and teenagers beating up on the homeless. The film contextualizes one of those manifestations and flips it on its head. Society has failed to admonish men generally on their brutish and often violent behaviour and actions that contribute to the suffering of others. You have a self-aware politically correct man who has become afraid of the dark and thinks he is doing the right thing when he takes up karate, but, nevertheless gets caught up in another manifestation of toxic masculinity. It’s an intriguing film and shines a light on toxic masculinity endemic to post-modern societies. The film struck a chord with me about the prevalence of random violence in our society and how vulnerable we all are in becoming a random statistic fueled in part by toxic masculinity. Surprisingly and much to my horror, the film does make a case for arming yourself with a gun.
It’s a provocative film framed within the pathology of toxic masculinity and is an intriguing and compelling film to watch for the film plays with notions of masculinity. The acting, the storyline, the dialogue, and the cinematography make it so. It’s a complex film exposing the cruelty and brutality of toxic masculinity running unchecked in our post-modern world. Do see it for you won’t be disappointed.
Pacific Northwest Pictures releases The Art of Self Defense on Friday, July 18. 2019