The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

Directed by Riley Stearns

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A man easily intimidated willfully transforms himself into the thing that intimidates him.  It’s following an assault at the hands of a motorcycle gang that Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) enrolls in classes at a local dojo, in awe of the calm, cold confidence of its Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).  His subsequent training and infatuation with the testosterone-infused advice given to him sets him on a path of dangerous self-transformation.

The Art of Self-Defense remains comic and disturbing throughout, often at the same time.  The world here is an unsettling, insular one.  We never spend time outside of Casey’s quiet, mundane life.  We see him at work, where he’s an accountant struggling with smalltalk, we see him at home with his Dachshund, in his car trying to learn French or in a cafe with his regular order, a chocolate croissant and orange juice.

This doesn’t change when he takes classes at the dojo.  His worldview, and that of the film, doesn’t open up.  Instead one routine is replaced by another.  It’s telling that this movie never offers you any wish fulfillment.  We get that scene early on in which three coworkers (who talk only of sex and their disdain for their boss) mock him, and Casey retreats back to his desk.  Knowing he will grow more confident with his training, there’s an expectation that he will respond to them with aggression, in fact such a moment is included in the trailer.  Even if his actions were uncalled for, seeing him hit one of these men would undeniably be a moment of satisfaction for the audience, the point at which his transformation is on the up and up, with only hints of self-sabotage.  Instead Casey assaults the one man, his boss, who had been unnaturally kind to him.

It is nevertheless an amusing moment, but it skips any sort of wish fulfillment and acts as a frightening, but again kind of hilarious, harbinger of where this movie is headed.

The entire film feels like it’s been ripped out of some kind of graphic novel.  The world, even just in color tone, is so unnerving.  It’s bland, happens to be set sometime in the 90s with cassette tapes and blocky gray desktop computers, and with the regular motorcycle assaults Casey is afraid to even go outside just to buy his dachshund food.  Of course the dog food he buys is just a large brown bag that reads “Dog Food,” just as a bar that comes into play later in the story is a nondescript building with a red sign that reads “BAR.”

Adding to this alienating effect is that Casey has no ally whom we don’t also suspect is up to something.  His boss, Grant, was that person, even paying Casey out of his own pocket after he had outlasted his disability pay, and Casey punched him in the throat.  Casey is very much a part of this alienating effect because he keeps friends at a distance and the audience even further.

So it might not surprise you that characters speak in a purposefully stilted manner.  The humor is dry, and the characters emote with the intensity of a mannequin without eyelids.  The priority always seems to be the thematic subtext of their conversation and of this world.  In just about every moment you can feel the bleeding desperation for respect and fear.  This is a world of men, aside for one character, Anna (Imogen Poots), who are either sociopathic or meek and want to become sociopathic, without realizing it.

Of course this all morphs into something like Fight Club.  All that subtext, all those themes, they start to rock the boat until the plot doesn’t so much crack as dissolve.  The subliminal outweighs the literal text, and though the latter stages of the story become a little heavy-handed, it remains funny, disturbed and uniquely its own thing.

Up Next: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)/Dave (1993), River of Grass (1994), Night Moves (2013)

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