Twenty years ago, Fight Club presented a satirical look at the male psyche and our obsession with consumerism. Rather than learn from that film’s exaggerate portrait of toxic masculinity, a whole generation grew up idolizing and mimicking it. It is these wannabe Tyler Durdens, who associate aggression with manhood, that Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) encounters daily in Riley Stearns’ dark comedy The Art of Self-Defense.
Everywhere he goes Casey runs into individuals who feel embolden and entitled to exert their perceived dominance over him. For example, people like the couple at a restaurant who openly mock him in French unaware that he knows the language; and the guy who opens his car door into Casey’s car but expects the mild-manner accountant to look the other way.
Silently enduring the various levels of emotional abuse thrown at him, Casey cannot even talk to his dachshund with authority without feeling the need to apologize immediately afterwards. Despite his meek demeanor, even Casey has a breaking point and it comes when he is randomly attacked by a motorcycle gang while going out to buy dog food one night. Finally deciding that it is time to defend himself, Casey’s first instinct is to buy a gun. That plan is quickly kiboshed when he stumbles across a karate dojo run by a soft-spoken Sensei (Alessandro Nivola, who is hilarious in the role).
Swept up by the manly confidence that Sensei exudes, Casey devotes his time to karate and his new mentor’s teachings. He begins to listen to more manly music such as Heavy Metal and gives up his French lessons for the more “masculine” dialect of German. It is only when Casey gets invited to the dojo’s exclusive night class that he starts to see the darker side of his beloved Sensei.
An extremely dark comedy, The Art of Self-Defense’s twisted blend of humour and biting social commentary makes for a truly unique exploration of toxic masculinity. While the film never delves as deeply into its themes as it could have, making for a rather uneven experience, Stearns’ film effectively taps into how toxic masculinity is frequently accepted and enabled in society. A point that hits home further when observing Anna’s (Imogen Poots), the lone female instructor at the dojo, plight in the film.
On one hand, Anna represents the countless number of women who must constantly prove themselves despite being the most qualified person in the room. Not only is she routinely overlooked for promotion; but is also blamed for being a temptress when a colleague cannot control his sexual attraction to her. However, by being so determined to fit into the group, Anna ends up propping up the same structures that are designed to keep her down.
This duality gets especially messy when one considers Casey’s path within the same structure. The more empowered Casey feels, he wears his yellow belt as if it is an impenetrable suit of armor, the easier it is for him to justify his despicable actions. However, The Art of Self-Defense never seems quite sure how to combats this unhealthy patriarchal structure. The film’s fight fire with fire mentality is problematic when one considers that the initial flames are already burning society down.
While the film’s messaging gets a bit murky at times, what holds it all together is Eisenberg’s brilliant performance. Eisenberg has an uncanny ability to play characters who remain relatable even in their most appalling moments. He takes it to another level here by also ensuring that Stearns unique humour still shines through all the darkness.
The Art of Self-Defense may not quite deliver the lethal satirical karate chop it strives for, but there is more than enough here to earn its spot on the mat.