12th Jul2019

Fantasia 2019: ‘The Art of Self-Defense’ Review

by Chris Cummings

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, Phillip Andre Botello | Written and Directed by Riley Stearns

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Directed and written by Riley Stearns, who wrote and directed Faults, a movie I was very fond of back in 2014, The Art of Self-Defense follows a highly strung and anxious book-keeper named Casey, played by the not-new-to-neurotic Jesse Eisenberg, who is attacked by a gang and decides to join a karate class in order to learn… well, the art of self defence. It’s here that he meets the Sensei, played by Alessandro Nivola (Face/Off), a charming teacher who helps give Casey some optimism. We also meet Anna in the karate studio, played by Imogen Poots (Green Room), a brown-belt with mettle. The film takes a trip down dark alleys, however, when Casey goes to the night class of Sensei and finds an underbelly of violence and extremes of masculine bravado.

The Art of Self-Defense feels enigmatic in the way of films like Fight Club, yet has this lighter disposition, a tone of silliness to it, and an impending feeling at the edges that makes it feel like something bad is about to happen. Eisenberg, already very well-tested as the Woody Allen-esque brittle character type, plays Casey with a skittishness that makes him someone we can root for, yet also can’t help but pity. He was on good form here, and though it must be said that he was much like he has been in many films we’ve seen him in before, and sure… there comes a time where you worry that you’re just watching itchy Jessie Eisenberg and not the character he’s portraying, I needn’t have been concerned here. I was pleased to see the character change as the film progressed, taking the usual elements we see from Eisenberg, and flipping them around a little, giving the character a deeper set of emotions. I enjoyed him here. Nivola, as the mysterious Sensei, is just the right kind of weird that only brings more curiosity to his character and to the film. I’ve enjoyed his roles in the past, and this one was as enjoyable as anything I’ve seen him do before. He walks the line of creepy and funny in just the right way. Poots, as Anna, is really good, a necessary female presence played with attitude. I thought she was excellent in this movie.

Something I liked about Faults and equally about The Art of Self-Defense is the way that Stearns forces his characters into a corner and brings out this grey and fluorescent light dim to the way they speak, interact and show emotions. It feels, at times, a little like we’re witnessing things through the haze of sadness or bewilderment that the characters seem to give off. The world never feels like the world we’re a part of but rather some stilted and peculiar version of it. There’s a real study of male dominance here, and the bravado I mentioned earlier is delved into in the way Casey is pushed into this strange new place. It’s quite riveting and shows Stearns as a director with a curious eye, and an eye for the periphery, showing things and discussing things that we’re not necessarily used to being discussed in this manner. The tone of the film is bleak, yet there’s enough space for humour, a black and obscure kind of humour that can come across as discomfort or awkward interaction. Some of the dialogue is so forced and stiff, especially from Casey, that you can’t help but chuckle. I say forced and stiff in a positive way, if that makes any sense. It’s meant to be like that, and it works.

There’s a lot going on with The Art of Self-Defense, beyond it’s comedic weirdness and it’s studies of its characters, it’s also an observational film, taking a look at various things, from social norms to the way we communicate and deal with discomforting and threatening things. I think, once again, Stearns has created something unique and pretty damn excellent. It’s the dialogue that really hit me, though. I laughed a lot. There are so many instances where the characters say things that are just so absurd and out of nowhere, it only adds to the atmosphere. I was surprised by this one just like I was surprised by Faults five years ago, and the surprise was a positive one.

An abnormal satire that makes you laugh awkwardly under your breath while pretending to cough, like its lead character would. The Art of Self-Defense is an unexpected joy, both droll and preposterous, but in the best way. See it.

**** 4/5

The Art of Self-Defense screened on July 11th as part of the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival.

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