Timely Self-Defense a dark comic delight

Casey Davies is a loner.  Not by choice, mind you.  The young man is socially awkward and has an unpopular job at the firm he works at – as the company’s accountant, he audits his co-workers expense reports.  He lives in a small apartment with his dachshund and seems, if not happy, secure in the life he’s living…that is, until he’s attacked by a gang of thieves on motorcycles who beat him mercilessly, leaving him broken and bleeding in the street.

The offspring of David Fincher’s Fight Club, Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense puts toxic masculinity under the microscope and examines its corrosive nature as well as those susceptible to its influence.  While it tends to follow many of the same narrative beats of its 1999 predecessor, its third act is wholly unique and surprising, while Jesse Eisenberg as Casey delivers an engaging and sympathetic turn that proves consistently surprising.

Consulting a men’s magazine for guidance, Casey’s first response to his attack is to arm himself so he visits a gun shop to purchase a pistol, something that initially gives him a sense of power. However, when he stumbles upon a storefront dojo, he’s immediately sucked in by the notion of taking matters into his own hands.  This is subtly but powerfully encouraged by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), the owner of the school who sincerely bolsters Casey’s confidence whenever he can, fostering a sense of loyalty in the young man that ultimately proves confining.

The owner of the gun shop’s matter-of-fact dispensing of statistics that encourage gun use is indicative of the dark humor Stearns effectively wields throughout, as he brilliantly underscores the ridiculous nature of overt methods of self-defense and effectively shows their ineffectiveness throughout. This is a genuinely funny movie in the way it skewers the artifice of machismo, as Casey is encouraged to learn German instead of French, listen to metal music and ignore his weak dog, replacing him with a more manly breed.

From the safety of your seat in the theater, this humor plays well.  However, Stearns’ intent is to show how dangerous this line of thinking is regarding men – and even women --  who are vulnerable to it.  Each of Sensei’s students has suffered some sort of trauma that’s left them questioning their purpose in life.  Obviously, this is not uncommon and leads to the sort of hate groups and defensive, insular thinking that’s become much too prevalent in today’s society.

The timely nature of the film, as well as the inventive third act that pulls out one surprise after another, makes The Art of Self-Defense well worth seeking out and discussing.  That it may not find the audience it deserves will not surprise me in the least.        

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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