Even as someone who tries to follow as many of the big film festivals, it’s hard to keep track of every film that comes out. Between the mainstream and all the indies, films slip through my fingertips. It wasn’t until a month ago or so that all the hype of The Art of Self Defense reached my Twitter feed. That was just in time for me to realize I can not miss out on this film, and I am truly glad I didn’t let it slip. I’m also glad I opted for a second viewing, this time with an audience. This deserves to be watched in a theatre, and not at home.
The Art of Self Defense stars Jesse Eisenberg as Casey Davies, a man who gets pushed around a lot at work, and one day on his way to the store for dog food, he then is attacked by people on motorcycles. This causes him to take some time off and consider learning how to protect himself, so he finds a karate dojo and that’s where he meets Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Casey slowly and from afar, learns what it means to be a man. Or a typical and awful idea of what it means to be one. The film very much deals with toxic masculinity, these things that men were brought up thinking about how they should behave, or how they should treat people – specifically women. At one point, Casey and Sensei are having a conversation about men and women. Sensei mentions that tandem bikes are for women, and sex is for men. This is just one aspect as some of the absurdity that comes out of Sensei’s mouth. In fact, a lot of the dialogue borderlines on absurdity, but in a very grounded filled with humour way. It can be so blunt and to the point, while also making you second guess what they just had said.
While taking classes at the dojo he meets one of the teachers, Anna (Imogen Poots) and they slowly form a unique friendship that lives outside of the strange cult that Sensei has established. The pupils in the class absorb every word that comes out of Sensei’s mouth and follow his every move, even if they shouldn’t. The film for many reasons reminded me of Fight Club. A place where mostly men would meet to fight one another, (eventually after dark once the night classes are introduced), there are rules that everyone must follow while being in this “safe place” and also that the lead “hero” that everyone follows isn’t actually a hero. That’s where people who love Fight Club usually get it wrong, Tyler is never the hero. His speech about “looking like you wanna look, fuck like you wanna fuck” is the theme of toxic masculinity spoken to the camera, and yet film bro’s are still eating the film up and think it’s absolutely cool. But in our climate, and due to the absurdity in the (brilliant) script, it’s clear that Sensei is not the hero in this story.
We follow Casey’s arc as he loses himself momentarily because he feels like he’s not enough. And frankly, Eisenberg is an incredible choice for the role. He has a tendency of playing some of these softer more “pushover” guys, which can be called “beta” males. The film goes into beta vs alpha males, and how to have dominance over others.
There are points in the film that had me completely shocked, others were crying of laughter and also afraid of ever joining a martial arts dojo. When talking to Eisenberg about the film, he mentioned that he wouldn’t be surprised if some people found Sensei to be the hero the way others might see Tyler Durden (or even Tom Cruise’s Frank Mackey from Magnolia) as their own hero. While I agree with him, I hope that at least most people can walk away knowing better than that.
Riley’s script shows us the odd and cult-like way we follow and treat these “alpha” males, or rather paints them in a picture as the way they would like to be seen themselves, but once you take it out of their own safe place and is brought into the real world, we see them how they are: dumb and absurd.