The Art of Self-Defense (Riley Stearns, 2019, USA)

            The Art of Self-Defense, the second feature from writer-director Riley Stearns, is a dark and offbeat take on American masculinity. Some aspects of the film are strikingly familiar. Most notably, Jesse Eisenberg’s turn as the dweebish and meek lead character Casey is a role we have seen him play plenty of times before. Likewise, the film’s plot – involving Casey’s turn from a mild-mannered white-collar worker to violent psychopath, through participation in a fighting club – is similar to David Fincher’s Fight Club. Still, Self-Defense is unique enough that it merits a viewing.
            Tonally, the film at first appears quirky and innocent. Our protagonist Casey enrolls in a local karate class after being beaten up and robbed. Throughout the first act, it’s not exactly clear where Stearns is taking us. The pacing is slow and the dialogue is stilted. Likewise, the setting itself is ambiguous. There are no clear markers regarding the location or time period in which the film is meant to take place. Alessandra Nivola as Casey’s karate instructor Sensei is also hard to read at first. His dialogue – spoken as if read from an instruction manual – keeps up the film’s droll tone.
            The film quite drastically shifts into more surreal territory when Sensei begins instructing Casey on how to live his life – to reflect only strength and toughness. In particular, a scene wherein Casey confronts his co-workers who have bullied him in the past leads the viewer into uncertain territory – did we just watch Casey’s fantasy? Is this reality? The deadpan comedy we have been introduced to in the beginning soon transitions into thriller, with extreme violence.
            The film’s examination of the power struggle between Casey and Sensei reveals some inherent truths about masculinity, and the way in which the two characters evolve into mirror images of one another is the film’s main appeal. 



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