ITOL 2019 Round-up: The Art of Self-Defense

By Tom Moore

There’s no film from this year that is the perfect storm of incredible dark comedy and strong storytelling than the sophomore feature effort of writer/director Riley Stearns – “The Art of Self Defense”. The film, about a timid man attempting to find some self-confidence through learning karate only to discover the dark secrets of the local dojo he goes to, is just purely immaculate.

Right from the first scene, the film easily found a direct line to my funny bone and continued to rattle it with every wild and odd moment that comes from Casey’s (Jesse Eisenberg) experience with learning martial arts and the overtly serious nature of Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). From learning how to punch with your feet and kick with your hands to hearing about how the dojo’s grandmaster won a fight to the death by killing his opponent with his index finger, there’s such an odd, quirky humor to the film that’s incredibly effective and makes the performances a lot of fun.

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Eisenberg brings his total range here making Casey’s timid fear of everything around him very believable and Stearns’ off-beat comedy script the subtle punch-ups that constantly make you laugh. It’s easily his one of the best performances of his career, right up there with “The Social Network” and “Zombieland”, and there’s an equally great performance from Nivola as the mysterious and strong-willed sensei. Nivola is a dominant force in the film and makes you feel the sensei’s alpha-male personality. The two of them have incredibly chemistry that explodes when the film takes a dramatic turn and unleashes one of the most surprising, “Fight Club”-esque twists that blew my mind when I first saw it.

It’s sharply dark comedic chops, gut-punching dramatic turns, and deep look at toxic masculinity make it a worthy choice when talking about the best of a great year for film.

When Casey goes starts attending the dojo’s night classes, the film takes a darker turn that not only exposes Sensei’s true intentions, but also delves in the film’s themes about toxic masculinity. There’s a lot to unpack with the alpha-male mentality that Sensei has instilled within the dojo and seeing Casey work through it and against it when he realizes the connection the dojo has with the traumatic incident that led him there in the first place is fascinating. The way this alpha-male mentality has infected all that enter the dojo is legitimately horrifying and even the way that it affects the dojo’s only female student, Anna (Imogen Poots), and the way she’s treated compared to the other male students perfectly reflects how toxic things are.

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There’s no film from this year that is the perfect storm of incredible dark comedy and strong storytelling than the sophomore feature effort of writer/director Riley Stearns – “The Art of Self Defense”.

It’s worth mentioning, by the way, that Poots’ performance is also spectacular, and you really start to connect with her in the later parts of the film. The ending is honestly the best parts as it’s not only anti-climactic in the most hilarious and best way possible, but it perfectly ends with this toxic masculinity being snuffed out in a very satisfying fashion and ends each character arc in a very meaningful way. Not to mention, it even gives Casey’s dog, the most adorable dachshund that’s ever graced the screen and puts Baby Yoda to shame, a perfect ending that made me want to stand up and cheer.

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Frankly, I could go on forever about the sheer brilliance that is “The Art of the Self Defense”, but it would all lead to this simple point – go see it! It’s sharply dark comedic chops, gut-punching dramatic turns, and deep look at toxic masculinity make it a worthy choice when talking about the best of a great year for film, and if there’s anyone that I’m anxiously awaiting to see what they do next – it’s absolutely Stearns.

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