The Art of Self-Defense offers karate and queasy satire
Casey Davies (Jessie Eisenberg) is so bland and recessive, he’s like a bowl of day-old oatmeal poured into khaki pants. His coworkers, when they deign to notice, vaguely despise him; his home has the depressive beige-ness of a long-stay motel; even his dog, a cow-eyed little dachshund, seems underwhelmed by his presence.
But when he’s jumped in the street one night and randomly, viciously beaten by what looks like some kind of motorcycle gang, something breaks in him. He refuses to return to his accounting job; he takes an exploratory trip to the gun store. Then he walks into a local dojo — and finds that karate, with its promise of physical strength, discipline, and control, feels like the answer to everything he’s looking for.
The Art of Self-Defense could have a lot to say about modern loneliness and toxic masculinity, ideas that writer-director Riley Stearn (Faults) largely decides to deliver as bone-dry, blunt-force satire. His style touches on both the comic absurdity of a Coen Brothers movie and the graphic, giddy violence of Fight Club, but the tone shifts often feel queasy, as if Stearns wants to critique these things but revel in them too.
Even with the onus of deliberately stilted dialogue, Eisenberg finds a way to make Casey real; his rage and fear, his eagerness to avoid conflict, and the other part of him that emerges when he realizes how good confrontation can feel.
As the flinty, swaggering sensei, Alessandro Nivolo (so good in last year’s Disobedience) toggles between silly and malevolent; Imogen Poots hangs out at the edges as Anna, a brown belt with a burning devotion to the craft but a glass karate mat over her head. And quickly, the dojo becomes not just a place for ritual or exercise but a sort of priesthood of enduring and inflicting pain.
In the final third, as the plot accelerates and moves toward more purely outrageous acts, Casey’s awakening should feel like freedom from the stultifying smallness of his old life. Instead, it mostly just feels like another kind of box, and an ugly one, too; less artful, all offense. B–