The Art of Self-Defense begins as many Jesse Eisenberg films do: compelling and depressing. Eisenberg plays Casey, an accountant who constantly lives in fear of the world around him and wants to do something about it after being mugged on a simple errand. Casey enjoys the finer things in life: French, his adorable dachshund, and making polite conversation. But as the film progresses we see Casey embrace the darker side of his persona, brought about by a hyper-masculine karate dojo sensei.
We’re constantly reminded of Casey’s sadness through very Wes Anderson-esque, almost cartoony imagery. On his aforementioned errand, Casey picks up a boring sack of feed merely labelled as “dog food.” When checking his answering machine, the voice notes “no one else has left you a message.” Way to rub it in, technology! The Art of Self-Defense is a project in a long line of films that’s more quietly funny than laugh-out-loud comedy, though it eventually becomes clear that this film is not exactly a “comedy” in the traditional sense. It gets very, very dark amid all of its silliness, paving the way for a sinister second act with actual consequences on an unpredictable roller coaster ride.
The allegory of dangerous masculinity is obvious (Casey’s sensei even overtly tells him that he needs to get a “less feminine dog,” and “listen to manly heavy metal”), but I couldn’t look away. Alessandro Nivola is captivating as the not-quite-right sensei, as he takes Casey, and us, on an askew journey not unlike an episode of The Twilight Zone or a David Lynch mind freak. Imogen Poots, who is a bit underutilized in parts of the film, gives us yet another great performance as someone who feels pressured to conform alongside of Casey.
There are moments where Self-Defense goes from zero to 100 miles per hour, and there are parts where it chugs. No matter the pacing though, Michael Ragen’s cinematography and Riley Stearns’ direction help steer it back on track, keeping us in the moment. I wouldn’t dare ask for a sequel to this clearly standalone project, but I’d love to see more darkness from this same duo (beyond their 2014 collaboration of Faults) because they clearly have a knack for it.
I wish The Art of Self-Defense was a bit more subtle because it nails much of what it’s trying to accomplish. The entire style and harrowing nature of the narrative kept me in the film from start to finish, wondering not only what would become of Casey, but what else this bizarre world could throw at me.