The Art Of Self-Defense


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Art Of Self-Defense
"For those who get into the rhythm of it, this is an instant classic." | Photo: Courtesy of EIFF

There's a scene early on in The Art Of Self-Defense in which our hero, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), tries to buy a gun. In accordance with state regulation, the gun shop owner carefully explains that when conflicts arise, people carrying guns are significantly more likely to be shot. What doesn't get discussed is the wider truth behind that statement: that violence begets violence and any form of escalation is likely to make things worse for all involved. Statistically, aggression is a risky strategy.

Statistics, numbers - these are pretty much the only traditionally masculine-associated traits that Casey possesses. He works as an accountant and in light of the way colleagues treat him, it would be difficult to argue that he couldn't benefit from learning to stand up for himself. it's a mugging that makes the difference, causing him to consider the gun, making him afraid to go out at night even when he needs to buy food for his not-very-masculine dachshund (played by Mocha, a real standout - one of those rare animals who seems to grasp the concept of acting and conveys emotion with the eyes). A solution presents itself when he discovers a karate school run by Alessandro Nivola's studiously masculine Sensei. this brings not only a new set of physical skills but also mentoring. What Casey needs, says the Sensei, is to be more masculine, more dominant, in every aspect of his life.

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At first this new assertiveness brings rewards: increased respect from peers, a (literal) seat at the table. over time, however, the disturbing truth becomes too obvious to ignore: the Sensei is a complete psychopath.

The very dry, deadpan comedy on display here won't be for everyone, and indeed there seem to be a lot of people who can't bring themselves to watch anything with Eisenberg in, perhaps precisely because of his fondness for playing shy, socially awkward men. For those who get into the rhythm of it, however, this is an instant classic. it's a natural fit for the Fantasia International film Festival. Although there are shades of Fight Club about the story, the delivery is very different and nobody is likely to make the mistake of taking it seriously as some fans of that film did. The script delivers some cracking comedy moments and Riley Stearns does a superb job of sustaining the joke over the full 104 minute running time without the story losing its energy as a result.

The karate aspect of the film is taken seriously and there are some impressive moves on display, though the action scenes are kept short in keeping with the clipped dialogue. They serve primarily to demonstrate the Sensei's physical unassailability and the brutality of his regime. Even the kids' class seems less focused on fun than on bone-crunching murder. Overall, the ultra-masculine approach to life doesn't seem to lave much room for fun. Casey wins admiration but loses friends. A brief workplace scene in which his colleagues trade lurid sexual thoughts about women nicely sums up the practical limits of such conversation. Casey even comes to worry about the weakness that might stem from petting his dog.

The Art Of Self-Defense doesn't preach, nor does it beg for understanding. It gives it to you right on the nose. The question is, can you take it?

Reviewed on: 12 Jul 2019
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The Art Of Self-Defense packshot
After being beaten up on the street, an accountant joins a karate studio to learn how to protect himself.

Director: Riley Stearns

Writer: Riley Stearns

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, Phillip Andre Botello, Caroline Amiguet, Apollo Bacala, Jason Burkey, Justin Eaton, Dallas Edwards, Will Ellis Jr, Josh Fadem, John French, Darren Gaebel, Scott Goodman, Mocha, Roman

Year: 2019

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: US

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