Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) sits in an anonymous diner, fidgeting as he reads a newspaper when an irreverent French couple walks in discussing how dégueulasse the pre-made dinner coffee is as they begin to play a cruel guessing game. They look at the cowering Casey and callously guess what he is doing and thinking. From observing him, they say he’s sexually repressed and looking for a classified ad. Little do they know Casey knows French.
Director Riley Stearns swiftly sets up the rules of the game with this devastating and sardonic scene. Premiering at the Fantasia International Film Festival, the world of The Art of Self-Defense is one predicated upon unspoken hierarchies, where the bold take what they want and ridicule the meek for their own twisted entertainment.
Casey Davies is, at first glance, a cookie-cutter archetype straight out of the pages of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He’s a shy and odd bookish accountant who works in a concrete basement. He’s friends with his boss and tries desperately to befriend the office alpha males. To highlight his oddity when his coworkers leave a porn magazine on the desk, he quietly photocopies some pages out of it, staples them together, and takes the neatly-pressed makeshift booklet home.
As Casey turns to his doe-eyed dachshund, he sheepishly opens the pages to a headline that suggests that tough men should own wolves. Later, while walking out at night to get his dog some food, he becomes the victim of a horrific assault at the hands of three tough-as-nails motorcyclists. While recovering on paid leave from his job Casey decides to join a karate class to learn self-defense. Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) expresses a keen interest in him and invites Casey to join the increasingly intense, and unconventional night class.
The Art of Self-Defense is in many ways a modern retelling of Fight Club, setting out to deconstruct and eviscerate the culture of toxic masculinity inherent to the iconic Fincher film. Stearns’ work smartly explores issues of gender and identity in his really quite meta film, turning “fight” in Fight Club on his head, and instead focusing on its less masochistic double, “self-defense.” Imogen Poots gives a masterclass performance as Anna, Sensei’s most accomplished student, who excels at her work but hasn’t received the recognition that she deserves simply because Sensei is a raging misogynist: he once blamed Anna for her own sexual assault.
Like its spiritual predecessor, or perhaps cousin, The Art of Self-Defense excels at creating a world in which an undercurrent of both rage and dissatisfaction exists amongst routine. Stearns’ approach is one of nuance, illustrating a world that is always on the edge of unraveling through minute details. In one particular scene, when Casey is ignoring the voicemails that have been piling up on his phone, the automated voice message lets him know that his box is full. The voice is not a robotic one, rather, it’s the voice of an annoyed woman whose lips seem to curl in annoyance when she pronounces the word “full”. This is the voice of a woman forced to labor, time and time again, for ineffectual men.
Initially, Casey’s Sensei is the image of an aspirational machismo–aspirational, at least, for the kind but quiet Casey. In the karate studio, the Sensei hangs up a list of the ten rules of his practice, with an addendum at the end that says “guns are for the weak.” His particular brand of individualistic, brutal, and bravado means that he must be feared. That his physical body must be stealthy enough to kill any man and that it must be so psychical- and metaphysically advanced that he can teach his feet to “punch” and his hands to “kick.” The Art of Self-Defense is ultimately an exercise in reckoning with and breaking the rules of a suffocating, violent, and chauvinism through a language of listlessly deadpan humor.