THE STORY – After a brutal mugging, a man takes up karate to better defend himself but soon falls under the spell of the dojo’s enigmatic leader.
THE CAST – Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola & Imogen Poots
THE TEAM – Riley Stearns (Writer/Director)
THE RUNNING TIME – 104 Minutes
By Josh Williams
Riley Stearns’ sophomore film “The Art of Self-Defense,” is a dark comedy that is both thematically rich and deeply hilarious. It mainly deals with themes of toxic masculinity but also discusses if violence is always the right answer to our problems, even if you can label it as self-defense. Despite the film being a little bit poorly paced at times, specifically in the second act, this project is pretty darn close to perfect. It’s very funny, well shot and acted and Stearns’ direction is sharp. It’s a massive surprise that is sure to be a big indie hit in 2019.
After getting assaulted one evening while purchasing dog food, timid accountant Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) decides he needs to find a way to defend himself from possible future attacks. At first, he goes through the process of buying a handgun but as that begins to take too long, he stumbles across a karate studio run by a man simply known as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Sensei invites Casey to a class of karate where Casey is instantly hooked on the philosophy and benefits karate provides. But as his training furthers along he stars to uncover some dark and hidden motives that Sensei has and wants to pass down to his students.
One thing that “The Art of Self-Defense” pulls off insanely well is constantly keeping a straight face. Some times a dark comedy film will start out darkly comedic but then slowly drift off that path and slip into a different kind of genre. Riley Stearns’ film is aggressive in its dark humor from the first moments to the last. The major source of comedic value comes from how the characters talk and interact with one another. The interactions feel like something out of a David Lynch film but with Stearns’ specific spin on it. The characters deliver what would be considered absolutely ridiculous dialogue in any other kind of project, with a completely straight face throughout. This not only adds to the comedic value but also how we perceive what is happening on screen. This isn’t the kind of film that you are meant to laugh at, even though you currently are. It is meant to be taken incredibly seriously.
The deeper themes of the story are expertly hidden within the film’s funny yet powerful dialogue. The screenplay mainly focuses on toxic masculinity and how men do not need to be overtly violent in order to prove that they are masculine. This is shown through the constant dialogue exchanges between Sensei and Casey. Sensei believes that Casey should be angry and strive for revenge from his attackers so that he can violently re-pay them. Casey is a bit reluctant to this because he is not an aggressive or confrontational person. This is the main commentary that Riley Stearns focuses on for a majority of the run time.
It also has some commentary on how Sensei is sexist because he believes one of his female students will not be aggressive or strong enough to carry out certain requests. Anna, played by Imogen Poots, has been with the Karate studio since it opened and she has yet to be promoted to a black belt. Sensei explains to Casey that it’s because she’s a woman and will not be able to be as aggressive as a man could be. This is obviously the wrong way of thinking and it upsets Anna as well as Casey. Sensei’s sexism shines through in several portions of the film like when we learn about how even though Anna was one of the first students he didn’t give her a woman’s changing room until several years after she started training. This aspect of “The Art of Self Defense” is thematically deep in several areas placing it above your average dark comedy type of project.
The only issue that the film really has is with its pacing, which is fairly easy to overlook at times and not so easy to during others. Specifically, in the first act of the film, it takes a good amount of time for the gears to start turning. While the first act and a little bit of the second act take a bit too long to try and get off the ground, there are some strong moments within these acts. It does feel like the film is trying to find its footing out of the gate. However, Stearns cannot see if he wants to start off with the serious tone we see during the third act or come out swinging with the dark comedy. Regardless, this is just a small blip in the overall picture.
“The Art of Self-Defense” is a thematically dense film that offers up tons to chew on in terms of its themes, which elevate it above your standard dark comedy. That comedy itself is often hilarious and delivered with incredible inflection from the main cast of characters. Despite some small pacing issues, the film is a pretty big stunner in all other categories. This could easily be the indie breakout film that hits big this year and I would be beyond excited if that happened to be the case.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The dark comedy is both hilarious and thematically rich. The film deals with toxic masculinity through the facade of karate which allows for both intriguing and funny interactions. Riley Stearns’ direction is sharp and the personal twist he throws onto his inspirations is outstanding.
THE BAD – The pacing is a little jumbled at times and it cannot fully decide what speed certain moments should play out in.