+ Recommended – R, Black Comedy, Martial Arts (104 minutes)
If you go into this film knowing very little, you’ll be quite surprised that it works as well as it does. Riley Stearns (Faults, 2014) returns to write/direct his second, full-feature film with The Art of Self-Defense; an atypical martial arts film with an absurdly dark undertone. While the story beats will feel very familiar to most audiences, the comedic style, and performances, will entertain throughout.
At the core of the film: a tug-and-pull between societal expectations placed on men and gender fluidity. One night, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is viciously attacked and nearly beaten-to-death by a motorcycle gang. After that night, he decides to become the person he fears the most in order to cure his suffocating anxiety. He stumbles upon a local dojo, led by a mysterious sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and begins karate lessons to overcome his fear of everything—but most importantly, other men.
Structurally, The Art of Self-Defense disobeys what it’s antagonists try to preach: conformity. The fluid nature of scene transitions and story progression contradict a more mainstream approach to filmmaking, too. While still somewhat predictable, the character motivations and transitional elements aren’t thoroughly explained—at least not with dialogue; instead, the frame determines what future scenes will pursue. Stearns isn’t afraid of the quiet, either. The white noise from the diegetic sound (naturally occurring) on screen builds tension and is employed for maximum effect.
The Art of Self-Defense is undoubtedly the most “dry” comedy film I’ve seen all year but that isn’t inherently negative. The paper-thin atmosphere of the film creates an anomaly in which the line delivery—and certain gags—land with greater force. There’s an unsteadiness to the piece perpetuated by slightly titled frames (Dutch angles) and off-center focus. Barely any rapid cuts are utilized leaving space for the audience to digest the entire scene from left-to-right. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is Charlotte Royer’s production design.
The sets are sparsely decorated and minimalistic in nature. This does one of two things: draws more attention to the masterful, albeit monotone, performances and allows for full immersion into a film where time and space are indefinite, even insignificant. Eisenberg and Nivola have magnetic chemistry amidst the exceedingly parched dialogue written for them. If nothing else, these two have some highly entertaining interplay. I can’t help but read pseudo-sexual undertones between their characters that is possibly implied.
It’ll make more sense once you’ve seen the film, but pay close attention to the “male” gaze and who holds it; even the positioning of the camera is often mid-level, right around the groin. If that’s the case, then there’s a lot more to this movie to explore and uncover. Stearns doesn’t explicitly make any particular statement with The Art of Self-Defense—as not to exclude a portion of the target audience—but with the subject matter at-hand, it always proves a difficult task. He takes a more subtle approach to the topic; providing an exploration of toxic masculinity that successfully avoids a ham-fisted, firm statement. Though his position is made evidently clear.
It’s dry, dark, and wicked fun; perhaps the perfect antithesis to a dull summer blockbuster season.