Writer/director Riley Stearns Strikes a Blow For Summer Movies With a Brain
Just before I saw the latest film from writer/director Riley Stearns (Faults), I read a medical article that was making the rounds on social media. The piece theorized that having a dark sense of humor may be a sign that the twisted individual in question will develop dementia. Well, if so, my frequent laughter during The Art of Self-Defense indicates I’m a candidate for early on-set Alzheimer’s. With the tempo of a pendulum, the film effectively swings from absurdist irony to disturbing violence and back again which kept this (disturbed?) film-goer completely engaged.
Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) plays Casey, a mousey boy-man who winces his way through his day like he’s expecting the world to pounce on him at any moment. As the film opens, Casey sits in a booth at a French cafe, reading the newspaper. A couple in a nearby booth make fun of his appearance and demeanor in French and giggle at their cruel running commentary. Casey folds up his paper, leaves the cafe and gets in his car. When we hear his French course begin playing on the car stereo, we understand that only hapless Casey could listen to 23 CDs of French lessons and have it culminate in being able to understand someone’s insults.
His male co-workers read magazines that combine photos of topless women, articles about assault weapons and lifestyle profiles with titles like Wolf, a Pet for a Man. After Casey is mugged by a group of motorcycle-riding thugs, he actually has a reason to be scared of his own shadow. He refuses to go out at night and even shops for a gun. The gun shop owner provides a final bruise to Casey’s ego when he calls about Casey’s order and assumes from his unisex name that Casey must be a woman.
One afternoon Casey happens upon a dojo run by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), a card-carrying alpha-male who looks like he doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear. He’s the kind of spiritual guru who spouts sayings like “I do not award belts, my students earn them”. From the moment they meet, we sense that Casey yearns to be in Sensei’s orbit. He’s still afraid, intimidated, but he’s also intrigued, like Sensei can lead Casey from the wilderness of timidity to the Promised Land of assertiveness.
This premise alone could provide for a solid film, but writer-director Stearns ups the ante by including a third character — Anna, the second-in-command at the dojo (Imogen Poots) — and constructs a clever triangle out of the narrative’s power dynamic. At first the audience is impressed by Sensei’s “wokeness”, but then we see Anna is tasked with teaching the children’s class because she’s more “maternal” than Sensei.
We suspect that Anna will be a perennial brown belt with the peak status of karate (a black belt) always just out of reach. Even karate promotions distinguish between the accomplishments of a man in competition with an equally worthy woman. Anna tries to convince herself that she’s the equal of her male classmates, but her suspected inferiority bleeds into every aspect of the dojo. She describes the women’s dressing room as “Just like the men’s locker room, only smaller and less nice”.
The Art of Self-Defense is a layered look at gender politics, sexual identity and the power dynamics between men. The film highlights all of the little ironies and inconsistencies in these relationships. We see the homo-eroticism of athletics when the men at the dojo stretch naked after class or wrestle half-clothed in the locker room. It’s an oxymoron of sexual mores like watching men in tight baseball pants slapping each other on the butt after someone hits a home run. It’s macho and not macho in the same instant.
One of the toughest aspects of storytelling in general, and in film specifically, is tone, maintaining a consistent “feel” throughout a 100-minute narrative. The Art of Self-Defense ratchets the difficulty level up another couple of notches by being such an effective blend of varying tones. The film is part mystery, part thriller, part dark comedy, and part social commentary. And it accomplishes this task with subtlety. It never preaches. It allows the audience to find its subtext and explore it to the extent it wishes. After I gorge myself on the rest of the Fantasia 2019 line-up, I want to re-watch The Art of Self-Defense with that special kind of focus that comes from knowing what happens next. I suspect I’ll peel back some additional narrative layers during that viewing.
The consistency of tone and the powerful subtext are due in large part to its stellar cast. Eisenberg, Nivola and Poots all play their characters with a pitch-perfect amount of earnestness. The film never descends into camp. The characters never become caricatures. There’s no breaking of the fourth wall, no knowing winks at the camera, no smirks that belie the actor’s satisfaction with a punchline that landed well. These people are not living in a comedy. Their lives and the issues they are confronted with are deadly serious business. As with most successful absurdist comedies, The Art of Self-Defense let’s the finely-tuned screenplay and sharp dialogue deliver the body blows to the audience.
The film is a rollercoaster of emotions with individual scenes making stunning hairpin turns. I happily had no idea what might happen next. While I enjoyed Stearns’ previous film, Faults, nothing about that thriller prepared me for the depth of this film. In a cinematic season that’s typically filled with mindless spectacle, Riley Stearns strikes a blow for summer movies with a brain. In keeping with Sensei’s teachings, The Art of Self-Defense punches with its foot and kicks with its hand, and it does so to great effect.