The Art of Self-Defense
The Art of Self-Defense is a devilishly quirky martial arts black comedy. Yes, it’s a weird combination - but that’s the point.
The best types of movies are the ones which are more than meets the eye. They are the films which give you more to think about. They show you things you hadn’t seen before, and take you on journeys you previously never thought possible. They are the films which exceed expectations by subverting them.
The Art of Self-Defense is one such film, although it doesn’t seem like it at first. It starts off in a familiar place. Casey is a shell of a man in his 30’s who lives alone. He is awkward and intimidated by others. One day, he gets mugged and beaten while walking home at night. In response, he signs up for a Karate class. He is trying to learn to be tougher, and indeed the class does allow him to find the self-confidence he had been previously lacking.
Up until this point in time, the film seems like this decade’s version of the Karate Kid. It seems like the sports movie we’ve seen a million times before; Loser decides to try sports, works hard, gets good at it, he is no longer a loser. Zero-to-hero is the classic movie trope. But that is where the similarities end. Suddenly, The Art of Self-Defense becomes an entirely different type of film.
In many ways, The Art of Self-Defense uses our nostalgia against us. We fall into the trap of feeling sorry for Casey. We expect some sort of profound transformation to allow the character to achieve some sort of redemption. After all, that is what all of these types of films have been about. They’re supposed to embolden their audiences to take charge of their mundane lives and make something of themselves. Were supposed to make failure the fuel of our success!
Casey joins a dojo because of these reasons. Yes, the character himself is motivated to become a stronger person, but the film is also trying to get its audience to walk into a trap. The plot doesn’t necessarily take advantage of our assumptions, instead it plays with them. That is when the fun really begins. It continues to press the underlying premise further and further to the brink of absurdity. It is an example of exaggeration being used to make a point. Many times the best way to teach about a situation is to make fun of it. The Art of Self-Defense is an oddly extreme sports movie.
At its core, The Art of Self-Defense is an observation of toxic masculinity. It examines how society has influenced our expectations of what it means to be “a man”. It takes a character who seems almost like a child, but explains how his own fears are actually shared by every other grown male character. The only difference between them is how they deal with it. For Casey, karate becomes a means to and end. It is more than just a way to learn to protect himself. It is a way for him to brush aside his own internal doubts about who he is.
But while feeling good about oneself is not a bad thing, the methods required to get there can be. The film asks us to consider how far we are willing to go to feel better about ourselves at the expense of others. At the same time, it shows us how society can make internal self confidence dependent on external perception. Casey feels like he is “a man”, but only when he believes other people see him as one.
Director Riley Stearns admits that his film isn’t meant to offer any answers to these dilemmas. Casey isn’t offered an acceptable solution to the challenges he faces at the beginning of the film. The Art of Self-Defense is simply expressing these problems and extrapolating them to an absurd, but logical conclusion. Casey’s journey provides its fair share of shock, awe, and best of all, laughs. The ideas here lay the foundation for a solid introspective drama, but instead the execution is comedic. It is the full embodiment of drama; comedy and tragedy together. And we all know, drama makes for excellent cinema.
I really appreciated Stearn’s approach to this film. As both writer and director his perspective is very straight forward, but not in a mundane or boring way. The pace is deliberately slow in order to fully exploit the awkwardness or absurdness of any given scene. His characters speak directly as if they only do so when it is absolutely necessary. They’re almost like robots devoid of emotion, and all of them are driven by their inabilities to cope with their emotions. Stearns points out the absurdity of our everyday life which we have learned to ignore.
The whole picture also has this mundane, almost timeless quality. The film could seemingly be set in either 1980 or 2020. But it is not lazy production design. It is meant as a representation of any situation. The topics of this film are as real today as they would have been in 1980. The lack of smart phones or internet just shows the universality of the films’ topics in relation to modern living. Really, the film’s lack of setting is actually quite brilliant. By not taking place in any particular time or place, it can’t be written off as a product of a specific situation.
The cast really takes full advantage of the space Stearns gives them on screen. This is a perfect role for Eisenberg, of course, but the whole cast shines. Their serious but comedic deliveries match the tone of the film and add to the bittersweet nature of the black comedy. There will be similarities drawn to the films and methods of Yorgos Lanthimos, Wes Anderson, and David Fincher. But Riley Stearn’s film has a more immediate and impactful influence. Despite the absurdity, the film remains shockingly real. The Art of Self-Defense is a near-perfect dark comedy.
What's bad: Does it go too far or not far enough?