To learn to defend himself comes at a personal cost for Jesse Eisenberg’s Casey Davies. The Art of Self-Defense brings his need for safety to the forefront, as he learns the world isn’t as easy or remotely kind as anticipated.
What The Art of Self-Defense gets right is that, sometimes, the innocent few can reach their own breaking point, where power inverts back and becomes theirs. Director Riley Stearns’ previous film, Faults (2014), deals with a similar theme — this turning of the tide, this power shift — though, in that film, it’s between two people, while here, it’s with Casey and the dojo, and to a larger extent, the world around him.
With this, it’s still a darkly comedic film. The switch of dry humor to dark and brutal comes as a refreshing set of pace. This switch does not come as sudden or uneven, but rather as necessary, the toxic masculinity on display needing to find an outlet and becoming a central piece to the unfolding events.
There are times where consequences come as shaky or disregarded, where the movie feels as though it’s existing in a seedy underbelly world of its own, where Casey floats in and out of real life and grows deeper into the life of the dojo. There are even hints of long periods of time being lost to him, which helps dig deeper into Casey’s psyche.
Eisenberg absolutely nails his performance as Casey, pulling off mild-mannered, almost worryingly so, and turning it into something more commanding and forceful as he grows in confidence. His signature half-mutter, half-comment style of speech is spot-on to this character, helping to sell this journey as someone finding their voice through their fists.
Alessandro Nivola as the Sensei steals the film, this boastful but stable man who uses his position as the head of the dojo to slowly corrupt his followers. Nivola has this charismatic draw, a fascinating way of delivering with conviction that makes him a compelling figure throughout.
Imogen Poots co-stars as Anna, more of an enigmatic role for most of the course of the film, but Poots manages to turn it into this vulnerable anger that helps show the baggage the dojo can place on someone long-term.
Stearns manages to splice in reverence for the mundane, his writing bringing out the characters through their specificity in language along with the physicality of their roles. It’s a film that relies on body language to place character intention at key points to the forefront, to see who is dominant and who is the meek.
As a follow-up to the excellent Faults, Riley Stearns brings a level of dry wit and humor to a darker tale of toxic masculinity and reckless anger. The Art of Self-Defense is interested in the give and take of learning to be the strongest version of yourself, but doing so with pitch black comedy.
The Art of Self-Defense screened at the Fantasia International Film Festival. It arrives in theatres on July 12th.