What does it mean to be a man? Do you have to carry a gun everywhere? Do you have to stand up and fight? Do you need all the power in the world to be happy, or can you be content with being submissive? I’m personally comfortable enough without being a gun owner or asserting my dominance everywhere I go, though I respect anyone who prefers the opposite. In The Art of Self-Defense, writer/director Riley Stearns asks the audience how to be a man with the help of some dark comedy. For the most part, this presentation works even if its dry delivery will deter some people.
In the movie, Casey Davies is a man in his mid-thirties who lives a quiet, more reserved life alone with his Dachshund. He works as an accountant in an office, which makes him an outcast in the eyes of the other workers. On his way home from picking up dog food, he gets ambushed by a motorcycle gang and is left in critical condition. When he recovers, he takes time off from work to join a karate class, led by a Sensei who is equal parts charismatic and enigmatic. As he spends more and more time at the karate class, he begins to question his own sense of masculinity and becomes more obsessive with becoming a “true man”.
Casey in the movie is played by Jesse Eisenberg in one of his best roles in years. He fits in perfectly as a nebbish office worker who finds new life through the karate dojo. Alongside him is Imogen Poots as an instructor who constantly gets pushed aside solely because she is a woman. The best performance of the movie, in my opinion, is Alessandro Nivola as the unnamed Sensei, who encourages Casey to make significant changes to his life. Among these changes are being more dominant in his day-to-day life and listening to death metal.
I hesitate to call the parts where I laughed “jokes” because of their delivery. Know going in that this movie has a very dry sense of delivery and may not be for everyone. It wasn’t until the second act of the movie that things started to get interesting. One scene in particular shows a student getting punished for moving himself into one of the more advanced classes without Sensei’s permission. The result got a laugh out of me solely for everyone reacting like they didn’t just see their instructor break another man’s arm. Without giving too much away, I’m also unsure if I liked the way it ended. There’s a twist towards the end of the movie that felt unnecessary and stretched my disbelief a little further than I expected going in.
Regardless of all that, The Art of Self-Defense gives excellent commentary on what it means to be a man in America. It’s not afraid to show its flaws and ask “how far is too far?” Couple its writing with some really good performances and you have a dark comedy that is a step above most others. Not a perfect movie, by any means, but I look forward to see what writer/director Riley Stearns does next.
The Art of Self-Defense is currently in select theaters