After he’s attacked on the street at night by a roving motorcycle gang, timid bookkeeper Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) joins a neighborhood karate studio to learn how to protect himself. Under the watchful eye of a charismatic instructor, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and hardcore brown belt Anna (Imogen Poots), Casey gains a newfound sense of confidence for the first time in his life. But when he attends Sensei’s mysterious night classes, he discovers a sinister world of fraternity, brutality and hyper-masculinity, presenting a journey that places him squarely in the sights of his enigmatic new mentor.
The Art of Self Defence was the other movie I saw at the NZIFF (along with The Nightingale), and I’ve been meaning to watch it for some time. I had heard of the movie for a while, mainly that it involved karate and Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots were in it, however I wasn’t particularly interested in it for whatever reason, or at least didn’t look into it. After seeing the trailer though, it really got me on board with it really quickly, it looked like it would be something right up my alley. I’m glad to say that The Art of Self Defence did not leave me disappointed, in fact it surpassed my expectations.
I’m a big fan of well done dark comedy, and even seeing the trailer I knew it was going to be for me. Throughout the movie was really funny, especially with how absurd and ridiculous the movie would get. You do have to keep in mind that it’s a satire, you’re not meant to take this movie 100% seriously. The dialogue was fantastic, and I especially loved the use of deadpan humour, leading to some hilarious and memorable moments/lines. I have no idea how most audiences will react to the comedy, but my audience seemed to have an absolute blast with it. As funny as the movie can get, the movie is actually a lot darker and twisted than you’d think it would get, and it only gets darker as it progresses. So if you are thinking that this is going to be a light hearted and quirky comedy about Jesse Eisenberg learning karate, it’s definitely not that. The movie at its core is really a commentary about toxic and hyper masculinity. At times the satire itself is funny, at other points it feels very dark and real. The movie is not subtle at all, it is very ham fisted, but for some reason it just works for the rest movie. Much of The Art of Self Defence is over the top and doesn’t always make complete sense, but its something that you’re going to have to go along with in order for it to work. There is also one twist which I did sort of figure out very early on, but it’s still earned and works within the movie very well.
Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast in the lead role, it almost feels like the role was written with him in mind to play it. He starts off as pretty much the embodiment of a beta male, really timid, self conscious, and can’t stand up for himself, but as the movie progresses and he tries to become more masculine, he becomes very full of himself and goes through some changes. Probably among Eisenberg’s best performances. Imogen Poots is also good in a supporting role as one of the first students of this karate group. Unfortunately she’s very much in a supporting role and doesn’t get to have a ton to do. She does very well with what she’s given however. Alessandro Nivola was a scene stealer as the mysterious and intense sensei known only as Sensei. So many of his lines are so ridiculous and insane but he delivers them so seriously and straight faced that it makes them even more hilarious. While much of the movie is funny, some of the highlights involved him. One of the best supporting performances of the year for sure.
This is the first movie by Riley Stearns I’ve seen (I believe he made another movie called Faults, which I have yet to see), and he’s done a very good job with it. It’s a smaller and independent movie but it was directed quite well, at least well enough for the movie.
The Art of Self Defence is darkly hilarious, disturbing, and entertaining, and I had a great time with it. Eisenberg, Poots and Nivola were great in their roles, and Riley Stearns’s writing and direction were fantastic. If you like dark comedy, this is a movie that you’ll definitely need to check out. Definitely one of my favourites of the year thus far.