“The Art of Self Defense” is a gender case studies that doesn’t feel like homework. In other words, your psychology 101 professor would hate it, and you’re bound to love it. It’s a haunting, evasive and startling funny satire with a black belt in martial law.
The rules have changed in Riley Stearns’ third film. You have probably heard a lot of talk about the hardships of women living in a man’s world, but what about a man living in a man’s world? That’s where the human punching bag Casey Davies comes in. Played by Jessie Eisenberg, Casey is wound up to the point of no return (or so he thinks). He’s as stiff as bark. A nerd with tucked in shorts, slouching shoulders and an apartment as beige and lifeless as his personality; Casey is as bland as cereal without milk. When he does let out a smile, it’s in the direction of this man’s best friend–and only friend, a dachshund. But the distinction of man’s best friend soon shifts to what makes a man?
That’s the concept Stearns is satirizing: the macho man myth. That you have to be as tough as nails and as robust as Dwayne the Rock Johnson to be manly. It’s a familiar premise for the director; whose portraits of psychological distress are painted on the inside building to a violent catharsis on the outside. But what distinguishes Stearns from similar-minded directors is his absurdist humor. The dialogue is stilted like a Wes Anderson movie, but the humor is more in line with a Coen Brother’s film. So yes, it’s a bunch of caricatures being critiqued for their political incorrectness.
None more so than the folks at the karate class he signs up for. Having been beaten up by bullies on bikes, and having found guns to be a dead end, Casey seeks out solace at his local dojo. That’s where he meets sensei. The maestro in manliness, Allesandro Nivolo gives lines like “I realize now that her being a woman will prevent her from ever being a man” the sinister punch lines they deserve. The woman in question is Anna (Imogen Poots). She’s the most talented of the bunch, but her being a woman turns out to be a bit of a problem.
It’s no problem for the drama, though, which is centered on masculinity. The only way to advance in the dojo is to earn your literal stripes. A black stripe on your belt means you get to attend the “Fight Club”-esque night class; a red stripe means you have killed someone, and “The White Stripes” are a band that seems all too “soft” in comparison to the heavy metal the students listen to. As Casey advances so does the mystery. Not everything is as it seems at the dojo, just as there’s more to this parable on America’s male identity crisis than meets the eye.
It’s a boy’s club with eleven rules, but I’ll focus on number 10: If it works, use it. That’s the venerable formula Stearns is working with. He’s found a tone that progresses rather than relapses; blending dark humor with noir undertones. It’s also a tone that is remarkably original. Fans of Yorgos Lanthimos might be quick to draw parallels between the two’s long, deadpan sentences. Still, this is its own animal.
The greatest pleasure is watching Eisenberg slip into his textbook transformation from bullied to bully. It’s what gave “The Social Network” its gravitas and its what gives “The Art of Self Defense” its own unique style. Whether this South by Southwest hit will achieve the same cult status, only time will tell. It’s certainly odd enough and timely enough to be shown at midnight theaters for years to come. But when put on the cinematic mat against its greatest influences–“Fight Club,” Office Space”– it probably won’t sweep the leg. (The third act revels in the very same machismo violence the story is critiquing). That said, it will still pack a punch.