After a mugging, Casey's already shaky self-esteem is shattered. He spirals, seeking solace in anything that will make him feel safe.
After he wanders into the local dojo, Casey falls under the sway of the charismatic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) who runs the school.
As he builds his skills, Casey gradually realises that there is more to the school and its macho leader than he initially perceived...
A pitch black comedy about toxic masculinity, The Art of Self-Defense was the first film I caught at this year's New Zealand Film Festival.
What defines a man? According to Sensei, unarmed combat, heavy metal music, and a German Shepherd.
Visually, this movie felt like a meeting point between comedy, and the vocabulary associated with martial arts training sequences – flat, symmetrical compositions, with flat (ish) lighting. The way this movie is shot is designed to keep all the characters at a remove to highlight their ridiculousness, but it also feels like a satire of the way Hollywood has framed martial arts.
It may seem minor, but the lack of mise-ene-scene and the focus on shots which emphasised the uninviting atmosphere of the dojo, helps to Sensei the sense of mysticism and power that he clearly wants to emanate.
His spartan lifestyle comes across as sterile and insular, rather than a signifier of any kind of enlightenment. It also just feels like a middle-aged loser who does not know how to make the dojo a financial success.
The performances are terrific - Eisenberg walks the line of audience sympathy. While it is easy to empathise with him after the mugging (and after his dog dies),
The other standout is Alessandro Nivola as Sensei. Deadpan and dead-eyed, Nivola is hilarious and terrifying as Casey's nemesis, delivering his macho pronouncements without a hint of irony. While I have been aware of his existence, the only credit I can recall seeing him in is Face/Off. After watching him in this movie, I am eager to seek out more of his work.
Imogen Poots has had a rough go of it in Hollywood. As Sensei's best student, Anna, she is like a contained detonation. Although relatively muted, she is almost scarier than Sensei, stalking through this movie like a lioness searching for prey.
Cold-blooded and blood-soaked, The Art of Self-Defense always very funny, but there is little release from the laughs.
From the outset it is clear that Sensei's arbitrary rules are really just his own misogynistic assumptions, but the lesson Casey ultimately learns is that strength is not based on rules but breaking them – his victory over Sensei is merely one form of toxic masculinity by another.
Casey may triumph at the end, but the end of Sensei does not mean the end of the system and philosophy he has created - which might be the film's greatest punch-line.
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