Sometimes, the right movie arrives and hits you at the right time, right when you needed it. Brie Larson’s Unicorn Store told a wonderful story about post-college blues and young adulthood that resonated deeply with me earlier this year, and now again serendipitously appealing directly to my current moody wants, Riley Stearns has put together a subtly hysterical, delightfully offbeat dissection of modern masculinity with The Art of Self-Defense.
In some timeless city fitted with retro tech and swaths of adjunctly gray-beige colors, Jesse Eisenberg hits all his coined notes as Casey, an awkward introvert who relates more with his tiny dachshund dog than to other people. On his way home one night, he’s brutally mugged and assaulted by a group of motorcyclists, landing him in the hospital from his injuries for a couple of days.
When buying a gun to protect himself doesn’t work out, Casey joins a karate dojo and becomes quickly enamored with the strength, confidence, and purpose the martial arts bestow him with. But as he grows a kindred friendship with his sensei, Sensei, and gets deeper into his teachings, Casey also uncovers a threatening allure bubbling throughout the dojo’s secretive activities.
Right at home in his pool of comfort, Eisenberg gives a great leading performance within Riley Stearns’ constrained, bare and exposed directing style. As a meek, anti-social accountant, Casey is very much a caricature of your prototypical wimp that could have been thrown away as one note. However, Eisenberg floods the man with so much real, candid emotion and depth that the character earns one’s affection completely, particularly next to the rest of the splendid little cast.
In one of the year’s best performances so far, a cucumber-cool Alessandro Nivola nearly steals the show as the damning, yet reciprocally fascinating Sensei. Nivola is captivating every scene he’s in, bringing a calm, collected, quietly hilarious swagger that unpredictably oscillates between compassion, intelligence, and demonstrations of vile, vile, matter-of-fact sexism. More than anything, Sensei is a character that feels lived in with an unspoken, though very tangible history, and both the character and Nivola especially shine when their tantalizing relationship with Eisenberg/Casey is explored.
And, not to be forgotten, Imogen Poots is fantastic as Anna, the dojo’s sole female student. With all the baggage that entails within the narrative and between Casey and Sensei’s friendship, Anna’s layered writing is manifested with an equally strong hand by Poots.
The Art of Self-Defense is largely carried by the trio’s evolving dynamic and its escalation into pitch-black dramedy all the way to the end. While it works very well, the film does hit one or two transitional bumps, namely those pushing it from the first half into the second, and then into a perplexing, potentially unsatisfying ending that doesn’t quite feel like it gives Casey a resolved arc. Additionally, though spoken well, the film’s themes can get touchily on-the-nose. The film stays very much cohesive, but these brief rough patches saliently stick out next to the otherwise exemplary package.
Still, though its narrative is overall predictable, playing most of its cards to a casually discerning eye sooner rather than later, every scene in The Art of Self-Defense frequently subverts expectations. Channeling shades of Wes Anderson and Jared Hess, Stearns sounds off with impeccably precise control over his deadpan dialogue, writing, and directing as his beautifully purposeful tale unravels themes of masculinity, both good and bad (mostly bad). Stearns’ use of (surprisingly excellently choreographed) karate and misogynistically homo-social interactions between men brilliantly hits literal and symbolic beats, making for a tight, masterful film that’s impossible not to appreciate in its obvious, but craftful explorations.