Casey Davies (played by Jesse Eisenberg), the protagonist of The Art of Self-Defense, is afraid—of other men, in particular. “I want to be what intimidates me,” he tells Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), the soft-spoken, self-assured instructor at a local karate dojo who seems to be everything Casey isn’t. Riley Stearns’s new film is a parable about Casey’s fraught ideals of masculinity that veers between goofy parody and rather straightforward horror. The script prods the audience to laugh as Casey begins his absurd journey toward becoming more intimidating, then suddenly swivels into more frightening territory.
This tonal muddle is appropriate to the state of the American psyche in 2019, when fury and rage are constant factors in every kind of discourse and seemingly empty threats can be hard to separate from real danger. The Art of Self-Defense, which follows Casey’s transformation from mild-mannered office drone to terrifying street vigilante, functions as an update of Fight Club, 20 years on. Whereas that earlier film saw its disaffected Generation X protagonists get in touch with their violent instincts as a form of catharsis, The Art of Self-Defense posits that these days, men do not have to dig deeply to find their inner brutes.
This role is an ideal fit for Eisenberg, but also an interesting challenge—though he’s played many a deadpan weirdo in his career (in films as disparate as The Social Network and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), they’re usually of the motormouthed variety. Casey, by contrast, is muted and robotic, given to skittishness and liable to fully shut down when threatened. After he’s attacked by a motorcycle gang, he considers buying a gun, but instead starts taking karate lessons with the mysterious Sensei (who provides no other name).
Nivola is one of those actors with movie-star good looks who has found his calling playing bizarre characters, and The Art of Self-Defense finds him at his funniest and weirdest. Sensei presents himself as a cool and collected warrior, but speaks in meaningless platitudes, telling Casey to buy more heavy-metal CDs and learn a foreign language, such as German or Russian, that will make him sound “tough.” Silly as this advice for becoming more masculine is, karate provides Sensei with a simple method of ensnaring lonely men in his cultlike following: Have them learn to kick and punch, and reward them with special belts.
That’s incentive enough for Casey, who takes quickly to the rules and ranking system of the martial art (in which each belt signifies a different level of experience and strength). Stearns wrings many an awkward laugh from the bromance that emerges between Casey and Sensei. But things start to get a lot stranger and scarier when Casey is deemed ready for the “night class,” an intense, ritualistic experience that encourages more outright violence. The film, uproarious in one moment, becomes rather grim in the next.
Eisenberg, Nivola, and a hilariously brusque Imogen Poots (as Sensei’s only female student) are more than up to the task of finding the comedy in scenes of nasty violence or brooding anxiety. Stearns, however, is less interested in balancing those tones than he is in exploiting their uneasy tension. The film is not set in a particular time or place, and its mixed reference points—a dingy beige cubicle and bulky monitor straight from the Dilbert ’90s, combined with other technological and cultural details from the present day—create an anachronistic, unsettling little world. The characters speak with plain and disarming honesty, spouting the kind of whole, robotic sentences favored by surreal directors such as Yorgos Lanthimos.
Stearns’s satire is mostly of the blunt-force variety. It’s hard to find much nuance in a film in which the characters bark out sentences such as “Everything should be as masculine as possible” and challenge one another to fights to the death. But that’s the world The Art of Self-Defense is describing: one where pure testosterone bubbles to the surface of every conversation and confrontation. It’s ostensibly a fantasy. But it looks a lot like home.