At his aunt’s wedding ceremony, my girlfriend’s 14-year-old son was disappointed that he didn’t get to have his hair garlanded with flowers as his three sisters did, but no worries: Somebody else forfeited their florid crown to him later in the evening, and he got a chance to sport it on the dance floor. It got back to him later that one of his relatives on the more conservative branch of the family tree was staring daggers at him the whole time. I kind of wish that it hadn’t gotten back to him.
Boys aren’t supposed to enjoy being fussed over or decorated, and boys who do need to be corrected, the thinking goes. Nobody asked my girlfriend’s son, or me, or you, what we think of this. If they had, I might mention the times I’ve gotten shit from people for liking to bake, or to sing, or have “The Entertainer” as a ringtone—all of which have prompted people to imply, disparagingly, that I might be gay. The Art of Self-Defense seems at first as if it’s just about how silly the axiomatic trappings of masculinity are. Then you realize that, no, it’s also about how scary they are, too.
Casey (Jesse Eisenberg, in a role seemingly written to fit him like a glove) is a squirrely man who works a boring job and finds himself at the bottom of every social pissing order he encounters, be it French tourists who ridicule him in the steadfast belief he couldn’t possibly understand their language (he can), or the jerks at the office who sit around talking shit. When he’s randomly attacked on a walk back home from the store, it knocks something loose in him, and he finds himself taking whatever steps necessary to protect himself, be it by buying a gun or wandering into the karate dojo of “Sensei” (Alessandro Nivola). Sensei’s straight-faced sophistry is exactly what a terrified, inadequate young man like Casey is searching for, and he quickly throws himself into the inner workings of the dojo to the exclusion of all his other responsibilities.
There was every opportunity for this to be nothing more than a romp through the objectively batshit world of low-rent martial arts instruction, a world in which I and just about every third person you’ve ever met has at some point dabbled before quietly slinking off—at one point Sensei presents Casey with his white belt with the utmost solemnity, adding after a pregnant pause that there is a $15 replacement fee if he loses it. Sensei regales his class with tales of the dojo’s late grandmaster in exactly the sort of terms you’d expect to hear anybody use when speaking about a cult leader. You expect to see Casey start clicking through YouTube videos of Joe Rogan making fun of fake MMA fighters at some point. The Art of Self-Defense is not that movie.
Among the many surprise attacks up the sleeve of its gi is the film’s wild pivot into disturbing gang violence and abuse. Casey finds himself at Sensei’s mercy, manipulated into committing violence against a random bystander. He begins to witness firsthand the abuse Sensei levels at his own students, the tactics he uses to build their self-esteem through group violence, but never high enough that they aren’t in awe of him. That includes Imogen Poots’ super serious, murderously intense Anna, one of the dojo’s founders who nonetheless is passed over for promotion time and again. She’s useful for teaching the children’s morning classes, though, because of course a woman has stronger maternal instincts—it can’t be helped.
The world of The Art of Self-Defense is an immaculately contained space, as claustrophobic and unmoored as modern life, filmed almost exclusively in cramped interiors and dingy rooms with sickly lighting. Something feels off about Sensei and his dojo right from the get-go, and as more layers of his deception and manipulation are peeled back, it all paints a perfect portrait of a social order based on hateful, dangerous bullshit, but one so alluring that you completely believe the prisoners within it really would never think to leave.
If there’s one weakness in the otherwise impenetrable guard of The Art of Self-Defense, it’s that its mumblecore underpinnings are a little too exaggerated, its world of toxic masculinity and alpha male foolishness a bit too broad a caricature. It’s hilarious that the random jerk with a pickup truck is as well-versed in karate hierarchy as Casey, or that Casey’s sudden transformation into a snarling alpha immediately makes his coworkers drop and start doing pushups just because he randomly tells them to, but they consequently somehow feel faker than the parts of the movie that veer heedlessly into the truly Grand Guignol.
But you know, the parody of toxic masculinity only feels exaggerated by a very little bit. My late father was a closeted gay man for about the first 40 or so years of his life, and was the one from whom I picked up drinking, smoking, motorcycles, and other things I’m sure I can’t see in myself for their closeness. All evidence I’ve seen of his early life points to his being shoved into a box he didn’t fit inside, and the eventual result was immeasurable hurt to him and to everybody his life touched. Was there a moment some time in his young life when he got rapped over the knuckles and told he should keep a German Shepherd instead of a Dachshund, learn German instead of French, listen to metal instead of adult contemporary?
The Art of Self-Defense doesn’t argue for compassion and acknowledgment of one’s softer side so much as it argues you should fight against toxic bullshit. Preferably with a well-timed sucker punch.
Kenneth Lowe is a contributing writer to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.