NZIFF 51 – Film Review: The Art of Self-Defense

The Art of Self-Defense is the second feature film by U.S. director, Riley Stearns, a pitch-black deadpan comedy that offers a deeply unsettling examination of modern masculinity and identity.

Director: Riley Stearns  Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, David Zellner.

Writer-director, Riley Stearns, has discussed the coincidental timing of his new film, The Art of Self-Defense, in a number of recent interviews, where he stated the 2015-penned script has found unexpected relevancy in a post-#MeToo world. Those who see this film with the notion that it examines the buzz-phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ won’t be disappointed, as the comedically grim story uses a combination of surreal absurdity and blunt-force-trauma reality to tear apart the worst aspects of hypermasculinity in our modern age.

The Art of Self-Defense takes place in a parallel universe – a roughly modern age, no distinguishable setting – and stars Jesse Eisenberg as Casey, an extremely exaggerated portrayal of a timid man both inside and out. Casey has no friends, lives alone with his adorable Dachshund, is emasculated by his male co-workers, and wilts like a stem-snapped daffodil at the slightest inclination of confrontation. After he is hospitalised as the result of a brutal group-mugging and assault, he joins a karate class that provides a temporary sense of community and empowerment before uncovering its sinister, cult-like machinations.

As the film moves from painful comedy to dark comedy, before finally resting its tone in the heart of a pitch-black abyss, we watch Casey transform from earnest, naive optimist to robotic and violent aggressor. The immediate change to Casey midway through the film is brutally absurd and exaggerated which, while hitting the depths of that comedic abyss, switches the tone to something ruthlessly sad and depressing.

Supporting performances by Imogen Poots (Anna) and Alessandro Nivola (Sensei) are flawless, with the former providing the necessary gravity and character focus to enforce the film’s thinly veiled subtext, while Nivola’s “Sensei” is terrifyingly callous and inhumane. The entire cast deserves praise for their unified delivery of deadpan comedy, and for maintaining that extraordinarily delicate, off-kilter feeling from start to finish.

The cinematography and flow of the film feels somewhere between Wes Anderson, David Fincher, and Woody Allen, with the quiet, desolate moments left hanging among beautifully weird scenes – Casey, a yellow belt, purchases only yellow-coloured items at the supermarket, and switches from learning French to German, which he uses to tell his Dachshund he will ‘no longer be coddled with affection’. The last third of the film is easily predictable, though still offers a few moments of surprise to ensure the film ends as positively as it could.

A highly enjoyable dark comedy for many, and a distressingly revealing film for few, The Art of Self-Defense is a must-see, offering a level of depth to its narrative far beyond the surface-level themes and social commentary it will no doubt be lauded for.

Oxford Lamoureaux