The Art of Self-Defense (2019)
Written & Directed by Riley Stearns
When David Fincher’s Fight Club came out in 1999, I was a college freshman, just the right age and gender for the film to hit me firmly between the eyes. I thought the movie was genius, and at some point in the 2000s, I started feeling like the picture held a certain phoniness, that is was macho posturing that claimed it was condemning a certain mindset while actually supporting that ideology. I love Fincher, but Fight Club is a picture that hasn’t aged well for me, and that might be because of the young men who flocked to its images but didn’t necessarily explore its philosophy. Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense feels like a wry satire of the sort of young men who wanted to start their own fight clubs after watching the film. In the age of incels and the questioning and exploration of what it means to be a man, there couldn’t be a better time for this picture.
Our protagonist, Casey, is an awkward & anxious accountant struggling to stand up for himself in a world where he seems to be a perpetual punching bag. Casey’s years of being ignored and quietly abused come to a crescendo when he’s attacked on the street by a gang of masked bikers. It takes a few weeks of recovering in the hospital before he can go home, but even then, the prospect of going outside triggers his PTSD. When Casey finally summons the nerve, he happens across a karate dojo in his neighborhood where the stoic Sensai offers him a spot in one of the classes. Casey discovers a passion he never knew he had before and wants to wear his yellow belt as a status symbol, letting others outside the dojo know how dangerous he is. But Sensai has kept some dark secrets from his new student, and Casey eventually learns about the night class and the extremes students are asked to explore.
The Art of Self-Defense is tackling masculinity through several lenses, the most obvious will be the cultural myths surrounding the bullied nerd archetype. Stearns presents Casey as the sort of person we should sympathize with, so withdrawn and neurotic that we can’t help but reflexively feel pity. Sensai doesn’t end up being the benevolent mentor figure audiences expect, though. He calls Casey to tell him he’s tracked down one of the bikers who attacked him and creates a scenario where the student must confront the man. The encounter ends in an unintended critical injury, and Sensai captured it all on film. We never really know his intent, whether to blackmail Casey or out of some sick perversion to coerce his students into harming another.
There’s a coded system of stripes in the dojo that Casey learns about. The black stripes are for those invited to attend the night class, and the red stripes are for students that have killed in combat. Sensai’s desire to watch his students embrace the worst in humanity while maintaining a veneer of control and honor is a pointed critique of the way toxic masculinity has been entrenched in systems and institutions. He makes casual comments about his one female student not being able to give proper massages because she doesn’t have strong male hands, he forces her to use a side closet/boiler room as a changing station, and in the second act of the picture we learn just how marginalized she is by her teacher.
Stearns makes sure that Sensai and his followers are never portrayed as inept at karate. They actually possess a high level of skill in martial arts, so the jokes are never ironic about what they can do. The humor comes of the dark comedy of how their lives are soaked through entirely with a philosophy centered around dominating every person they encounter. Casey is instructed that he needs to start listening to Metal music, stop learning French and learn German, and cease being affectionate towards his dog. Sensai speaks with confidence that these actions will unlock Casey’s true masculine potential. The audience understands that this is the mindset that by following cultural gender norms, we will feel more whole, an idea that immediately begins to crumble if examined in the slightest. However, Sensai is so revered by his pupils that his views are never questioned.
The Art of Self-Defense is a very funny dark comedy. It’s certainly not suited for every audience because it’s not shooting for broad laughs. I was entertained by subtle jokes and the way the cold, neutral line delivery highlighted the extremity of ideas being conveyed by characters. There are shades of Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch here, so if you find those filmmakers’ styles of art appealing, then there’s a lot here to love.
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