“This is like Suspiria, but with karate,” is what ran through my mind as I watched Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense. “That’s a bit of a stretch,” you say. But hear me out: both protagonists find themselves in an institution dedicated to a sport; both of them are consumed by the said sport; the institutions are not what they seem and they both hold something sinister; they have secrets dripping in blood and both protagonists uncover those secrets, which changes the course of the film. The Art of Self-Defense may not have the same level of bone-crushingly horrific physicality or psychological brutality as Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, but it’s present in its own way and covered in deadpan humor.
Casey (played by Jesse Eisenberg) seems like every other awkward character that Eisenberg has played, but that characterization he’s known for has never lived in a script quite like this. Casey spends his mornings alone at a coffee shop reading the paper, teaches himself French in his spare time, and if it weren’t for his adorable dog, he would seem just as boring as his accounting job. But this everyday routine goes out like a light, just like him, when he’s the victim of a random attack by a motorcycle gang. Feeling defenseless and in need of protection, he discovers a dojo and decides to take up karate for the safety that would allow a sense of normalcy to return to his life.
The dojo reeks of testosterone, and it's where the film becomes a satire of hypermasculinity in all its deadpan sarcasm. Casey’s karate classes turn into a hilarious PSA on how to “man up.” The film’s humor is owed most of all to Alessandro Nivola, who plays Sensei, the teacher, and in the moments when Casey doubts his ability to wear a yellow belt, Sensei encourages him to be as masculine as possible. Pointing out that “Casey” is a “very feminine sounding name” doesn’t help, so Casey becomes what intimidates him most: a man. This involves showing no emotion and surrounding himself with anything and everything masculine, like listening to metal and cancelling his French lessons for a more tough-sounding language like German. And when he chooses to no longer show his dog affection, you know it’s a horror movie in disguise.
This horror element is emphasized by the difference between the dojo’s day and night classes. In most horror films, daylight represents protection so, naturally, the dojo’s day classes are tame, but for the select few who are chosen to attend, the night classes are an opportunity for chaos; where people act like a pack of wild animals and where Casey learns of the true violence and manipulation of the dojo. The most brutal and violent of them all just happens to be the only woman of the group. Imogen Poots is a powerhouse as Anna, who proves she's more man than any of them because she is a woman. The way her character is crafted allows her to challenge the hierarchy of karate in such a brilliant and intelligent way, making for some of the movie’s most memorable moments.
Full of surprising twists and one of the best endings of the year, Stearns truly triumphs in his second feature-length directorial work. The Art of Self-Defense really packs a kick, and as someone who took martial arts for ten years, it really do be like that sometimes.
Movie Score: 4/5