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Review: The Art of Self-Defense

July 20, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

If Noah Baumbach or Wes Anderson had directed Fight Club, the result might have looked something like The Art of Self-Defense, a quirky dark comedy that explores what happens when isolated young men turn to violence as a means of self preservation.

The film follows Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a shy and quiet accountant in his mid-thirties who audits the books in an office, and struggles to get along with the other guys at work. He lives a quit life with his dog, a small dachshund, and comes across as very shy and unconfrontational. While walking home from the grocery store one night, he is viciously attacked by a gang of thugs riding motorcycles and dressed all in black.

This random attack leaves him shaken, and determined to be able to defend himself should it happen again. At first he goes to buy a handgun, but then decides to join a dojo instead, and learn the art of karate. This particular dojo is run by a charismatic leader known only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who teaches his students to embrace their unbridled masculinity and use violence as a way to gain confidence, an approach that has serious, unexpected consequences.

Written and directed by Riley Stearns, The Art of Self-Defense is a pitch black comedy with a tone that is often dry as a bone, perched somewhere between absurdity, satire, and serious exploration of the male psyche. Eisenberg is excellent in the lead, imbuing the character with his usual nervous energy, which gives way to brash confidence as he morphs into the very thing that he used to fear. Imogen Poots also delivers an interesting performance as the sole female member of the group, who remains stuck at brown belt and teaches the children’s classes. She has the power and strength of a black belt, and yet Sensei is reluctant to upgrade her.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Art of Self-Defense is that it really shows how easy it can be for someone to get sucked into a cult or extremist group, with these groups often preying on fear in order to recruit new members. There is a macho energy fuelling the group, but many of the men seem deeply insecure in their masculinity, and we all know this can be a toxic mix. Because of Sensei’s obsession with all things German, the film could also be seen as an allegory of neo-Nazism, and the appeal that fascism holds for those feeling out of control in their lives, particularly confused young men.

It’s heavy stuff, and I imagine that the film’s darkly comic tone will be off-putting for some, with it growing increasingly disturbing as it goes along yet still maintaining a twisted sense of humour. Not every punch or kick lands equally well, and there are a few moments that don’t quite stick the landing, where the film comes off as a bit heavy-handed. But The Art of Self-Defense works as a well acted and consistently entertaining dark comedy, that also has something to say about modern masculinity, toxic and otherwise.

The Art of Self-Defense is now playing in limited release at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto.

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