Masculine Manipulation: Our Review of ‘The Art of Self-Defense’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - July 20, 2019
Masculine Manipulation: Our Review of ‘The Art of Self-Defense’

There isn’t a lot of subtlety in The Art of Self-Defense; I suppose it makes sense as subtlety isn’t’ one of the defining qualities of traditional, brute male behavior. This darkly written, oddly unfolding story about a meek and mild man who aspires for some strength and respect from the males around him is an entertaining and disconcerting story with a quiet critique of male behavior.

Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) leads a drab existence punctuated by an incredible ability to back down from every possible confrontation or slight. He is seemingly pushed to the brink of his peevish lifestyle when he’s beaten up one night, enlisting in a dojo with a Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) who has all the confidence, charm, and unpredictability Casey seeks in life.

So begins a descent into madness: awkward, bewildering, comical madness. Casey doesn’t so much want to push back against the masculinity that pervades society and has threatened him – he wants to fight hyper masculinity with hyper masculinity. His quest for respect becomes one of revenge, and his Sensei, who insists on being called Sensei, instills such a strict, cold, harsh training existence that Casey even refuses to pet his dog for fear of coddling the tiny pup.

The Art of Self-Defense­ doesn’t quite have a real time or place; it’s an allegorical tale that resides in the mind of those who adhere to hierarchical ideals of maleness and dominance. The language is peculiar and direct; characters aren’t really individuals so much as vessels to explain or provoke. Of the class of students, one is the ‘before Casey,’ a young man who is too tepid and can’t seem to change his nature and keep it up. The world is brown and ugly and devoid of anything the least bit sensorial. Most telling, there is but one female, a young karate teacher at the dojo and a student of Sensei.

Played by Imogen Poots, Anna is cold and distant, struggling to push back against some harmful masculine ideals while also embracing her independence and strength that she has garnered from this world. She is at least aware; Casey is naïve and easily influenced, as are all the males who follow Sensei, regardless of whether or not what he is saying makes a lick of sense.  Sensei is a con artist of sorts – he may believe whole-heartedly in his way of life and teaching methods, but he also knows that his unwavering dedication to his persona and job enlists others. He knows how to command attention among men who want to be like him.

It’s a back and forth, with Casey slowing gaining confidence and strength, falling down and pushing against the world with his teacher growing more maniacal and brutal each step of the way. Anna offers some perspective, but Casey’s path seems undeniable. It’s one that takes him directly in front of Sensei, a thirst for regard that we sort of know from the beginning will not end in a bright and happy way. Most everything in The Art of Self-Defense is funny until it’s uncomfortable, and uncomfortable until it’s funny again. And then, just uncomfortable.

This post was written by
Comments are closed.