Writer-director Riley Stearns’ exacting and self-assured feature debut, The Art of Self-Defense, never specifies what year the film’s events take place. The computers, photocopiers, answering machines, and other technological signposts suggest the early 1990s; it appears to be pre-Internet and pre-cell phone, at the very least. This ambiguity with respect to historical period is to the feature’s ultimate advantage, as TAOSD’s droll, pitch-black tone – so dry it’s practically shedding skin flakes – depends on a certain purgatorial atmosphere. The film appears to be set in Cincinnati, although this is revealed in such an offhanded way as to suggest that the specifics of place are largely immaterial. (It was in fact shot in Louisville, Ky., and the location crew deserves praise for unearthing such marvelously banal and shopworn spaces.) All that matters is that the film unfolds in the bland, suburban Middle America of a not-too-distant analog era, a time when the pace of day-to-day life was a bit slower and it took more effort to foster connections. This is not presented in a remotely wistful or affectionate way.
Unquestionably, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) – a meek, single accountant in his 30s – finds it all too easy to plod through this environment without making so much as a blip of an impression. He doesn’t appear to have any family or friends. He’s absurdly quiet and mild-mannered, his personality as beige as the sensible, slightly outdated clothes he wears. His attempts to ingratiate himself to his male co-workers with small talk are excruciatingly awkward; pursuing a romantic relationship with a woman doesn’t seem to have occurred to him at all. At night, he goes back to his tiny house, pets his dachshund, and eats cold pasta while sitting on the couch. He wants to visit France someday, and so he listens to French-language lessons during his commute; yet this seems to be the extent of his preparations for this theoretical trip abroad. He’s not just boring but pathologically timid – what the 4chan misogynists of 2019 would doubtlessly call a beta-male cuck, if Casey ever actually interacted with a woman other than the cashier at the corner grocery store.
Casey’s insipid routine is forever shattered one night when he walks to said store for dry dog food. (In the generic brown bag, of course.) On the way home, he is brutally attacked for no apparent reason by a trio of faceless assailants on black sport motorcycles; when he offers them his wallet, they beat him into unconsciousness. This event so deeply traumatizes Casey that he finds he cannot return to work or even contemplate leaving his house after sundown. However, a potential solution to his crippling anxiety presents itself when he stumbles across an unassuming karate dojo in his neighborhood. Within its walls, a modest cadre of students train under the cucumber-cool eye of the Sensei (Disobedience’s Alessandro Nivola), a man who no one would ever characterize as a cuck. Upholding the traditions of his late Master – who, as the characters dryly and repeatedly mention, was accidentally killed by a hunter’s shotgun – the Sensei inculcates his students in a warrior mantra that emphasizes strength, control, and intimidation. Casey is captivated; he signs up for the school on the spot and begins attending lessons every day.
The low-fi cunning of Stearns’ screenplay lies in how economically it lays out the rules of the dojo – mostly via the eager, entry-level questions that Casey is perpetually directing at the Sensei and the other students. It’s a credit to the filmmaker’s tight control of TAOSD’s odd-duck tone that these blatant violations of the “show, don’t tell” rule feel relatively unobtrusive, and even amusing in their mannered absurdity. Casey’s amiable classmate Henry (indie filmmaker David Zellner) explains the color-coded system of belts and tape stripes that defines the dojo’s simple, ranked hierarchy. He also notes that although the Sensei holds both day and night classes, the latter are open by special invitation only. The dojo’s only other instructor is also its only female member, the brown-belted Anna (Green Room’s Imogen Poots), who exhibits precisely the kind of “backward and in heels” ferocity that one would expect in the hyper-masculine atmosphere that the Sensei cultivates. She has to be twice as accomplished as her male cohorts simply to compel the Sensei to designate a space for the women’s changing room (in truth a semi-converted storage closet).
Casey takes to this world – with its stern but sincere positivity, self-evident ranking system, and almost comical emphasis on chest-thumping dominance – with a single-minded fervor that he has never exhibited toward … well, anything else. There’s a strain of childishness to his obsession that speaks to his arrested emotional development: When he earns his yellow belt, for example, he thereafter buys only yellow foods at the grocery store. In short order, the Sensei’s classes have substantially bolstered Casey’s confidence and assertiveness, but also transformed him into something of a simmering asshole. There’s no gradual progression – it’s a wild pendulum swing from cringing diffidence to wound-up hostility. One day he punches his unctuous office manager in the nose apropos of nothing, which is just as well, given that he can no longer even feign interest in his work life. At the Sensei’s urging, Casey discards his adult-contemporary CDs for speed-metal albums and switches from French- to German-language lessons. The suggestion that he trade his dachshund for a German shepherd is a bridge too far, but he does stop “coddling” his pooch, refraining from petting or praising it. “It’s for your own good,” he declares aloud to the dog in a purposefully aloof manner.
Despite the ambiguity of the film’s period, it’s apparent by this point in the plot that TAOSD is taking aim at a distinctly late-2010s subject: toxic masculinity. The macho intimacy of hand-to-hand combat has been used to satirize this cultural current before, most conspicuously in Fight Club (1999), that notorious object misread by excitable film-studies undergraduates and men’s-rights troglodytes alike. In truth, TAOSD bears more than a passing resemblance to David Ficher’s film, to the point where it often feels like a rumpled indie riff on the same plot outline. However, where Tyler Durden’s underground bare-knuckle club only gradually mutated into an anarchist cult-cum-terrorist network, the Sensei’s dojo is eventually revealed to have been a hotbed of pathological abuse and criminal violence all along. This might seem like a bit of a spoiler, but Stearns’ feature never suggests anything else. It’s obvious that Casey is enthusiastically embedding himself in a twisted ideology that will inevitably trap him in an insidious, overcompensating feedback loop. It’s not a question of whether the Sensei will give him a firm, paternal shove over the proverbial moral precipice, but whether Casey will come to his senses and scrabble for safety at the last moment.
Director Jody Hill’s feature debut, The Foot Fist Way (2006), took another approach to this martial-arts-as-codpiece conceit, leaning into the sad-sack cringe comedy of a hapless schlub throbbing with unjustified self-confidence. However, it’s Hill’s wildly divisive, “psychotic mall cop” comedy Observe and Report (2009) that feels closer kin to TAOSD, at least in terms of its acidic, machismo-skewering ambitions. Hill failed to resolve his film’s pitch-black satire with its indulgence of action-cinema fantasy, but Stearns is on much firmer ground. He achieves this in part by adhering to a bone-dry, quirky tone that seems ripely plucked from an early Tod Solondz or Terry Zwigoff film – the sort of doggedly deadpan humor that inevitably provokes complaints of “There were no jokes!” from a dissatisfied filmgoer or two. There’s also more than a little of Wes Anderson’s stilted eccentricity in TAOSD’s screenplay, but Stearns lacks that filmmaker’s fascination with precocious wunderkinds and burned-out overachievers. TAOSD is resolutely normcore, a story whose grotesque darkness is unsettling precisely because it is presented in such a square, mild, and unexceptional context.
It helps that all of Stearns’ performers are so clearly attuned to the film’s oddball tone. TAOSD is an excellent showcase for Eisenberg, who isn’t so much playing against type as he is playing the flinching, milksop inner child of his usual supercilious, motor-mouthed characters. That the film works as a comedy at all rests on Eisenberg’s superbly guileless interactions with Nivola and Poots – the former nudging Casey towards the abyss like the world’s most unconvincing strip-mall Svengali, the latter coldly rebuffing him while also drawing him into her wary confidence. Admittedly, the film’s actors aren’t really portraying flesh-and-blood characters, but ridiculous, wooden caricatures. This isn’t a criticism, as it suits TAOSD’s satirical aims, allowing Stearns to maintain a blithe comic distance even as he takes the plot into the blackest crevasses of the anxious male mind.
If there’s a nagging flaw to TAOSD, it’s that the whole enterprise ultimately feels light on insight. Satires can paper over facile social criticisms with sheer, giddy nastiness and a high laugh-to-minute ratio; see, for example, the Coens’ vicious farce Burn After Reading (2008), which openly admits that it has no moral. Stearns’ film is simply too poker-faced for its own good in this respect. Although its central message – the devouring cycle of toxic masculinity is just as terrible for men as it is for woman – is a welcome one, it’s a somewhat meager basis for a 104-minute feature whose comedy relies primarily on scenes of characters talking stiffly at each other. It’s difficult to envision TAOSD having much rewatch value based solely on its thematic substance, but it has enough meat elsewhere on its bones to spawn a potential cult following. Between the ridiculously severe performances, the razor-studded edge to its graphic violence, and its unexpectedly terrific mise-en-scène – which resembles a parallel-universe Napoleon Dynamite (2004) as directed by Yorgos Lanthimos – The Art of Self-Defense feels like a dark-horse contender for some future “Best Underrated Comedies of the 2010s” inventory.