The Art of Self Defense is directed by Riley Stearns (Faults), stars Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola and Imogen Poots, and follows a square character who is attacked, and enlists in a Karate dojo led by a charismatic sensei who will change his life.
I hadn’t seen Stearns’ directorial debut, so I was pretty much going into this one blind. I was told to stay away from the trailers which I did and basically went in only knowing the aforementioned synopsis, as well as the fact that the film is a black comedy. I have to say, I was totally blown away by this one. From the get-go, Stearns marks his territory by emphasizing the aesthetic he chose to go with for this film.
It seems harder and harder to get a good movie that balances ‘style and substance’, yet fortunately this film does that perfectly. Self Defense has a distinct visual style, featuring gorgeous camerawork that is shot on beautifully grainy 35mm. As well, the film makes it clear that it has a very specific sense of dark humour. While I normally like most dark comedies, the issue I find with so many is that the genre it’s attempting at almost always gets tiresome at the end. This film manages to stay consistently entertaining throughout its entire runtime.
Stearns’ script is something seriously worth applauding here. What might seem like a simple concept on paper (and even for the first third, maybe even half of the film), ends up becoming a surrealist satire by the time you leave the theatre. The layers of social commentary the writer/director manages to display, on top of the already funny dialogue is something only true talent can create, and he surely has it. Similarly to last summer’s indie breakout hit Sorry To Bother You, the film pivots towards a new direction in the second half and I completely dug it. Try your best to stay away from any and all spoilers relating specifically to that because there are so many incredible surprises in store.
I also found everyone in the film great. While Jesse Eisenberg is pretty much playing a role you’d expect him to, his character Casey is so much more than just an archetype. Stearns’ story for the character comes from a specific real place, and the way Eisenberg translates it to the screen proves that it simply could not have been done by anyone else. Imogen Poots is awesome in a role that’s totally unlike anything else she’s ever played. Every character is pretty straight-faced and doesn’t show much emotion, a detached bearing not unlike a Yorgos Lanthimos film, and both Eisenberg and Poots are not only the best at doing that, but they bounce off each other so well. The one character that’s allowed to have a little fun in the deadpan world the film takes place in is Alessandro Nivola’s Sensei. Nivola delivers one of the funniest, most memorable comedic performances in what feels like forever. Every second of screen time he has feels positively fresh, he is easily the standout aspect of the film.
The Art of Self Defense tackles some pretty heavy, socially-relevant topics, most notably being toxic masculinity. I adored how the film is able to comment, and at a lot of times poke fun at it, without it becoming pandering or preachy. Stearns manages to tread what seems to be an impossibly fine line between commentating on the topic vs. lecturing the audience about it. I’m not quite sure how he did it, but he did, and it’s one of the most impressive uses of social commentary I’ve seen in recent memory.
Seeing this film with a packed crowd on the opening night of this year’s Fantasia Fest in Montreal was a real pleasure. I’m not sure an audience like that will ever happen again for a film of this size but saying that I do think that if you claim to support original filmmaking that you’d be an absolute fool to miss this one in theatres. It is exactly what cinema needs to thrive in this day and age, and it’s already here. We just need to accept it.