SXSW Review: ‘The Art of Self Defense’ Takes Aim at Toxic Masculinity

The way in which toxic masculinity manifests itself can be aggressive to say the least. Stroll by greek row on a Thursday night and you’ll find several cases that prove my point. It’s the kind of psychology for the Brads and Chads of the world, and as such, it’s an easy target for ridicule, satire, and criticism. Riley Stearns seemingly knows this and created The Art of Self Defense, a dark comedy that laughs at absurdism of hyper-masculinity and all its pitfalls.

The film centers on Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) who is your average, awkward, white collar accountant. One evening on his way back from the store, he is the victim of a brutal mugging that leaves him shaken and traumatized. Determined to muscle up and prevent a future attack, his search for self defense leads him to a karate dojo. There he quickly ascends rank and becomes a star pupil of Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), but what he soon learns is there is more to the dojo and his training than he first thought.

The film thrives at dry-pan, dark humor. The script is tack sharp when laughing at things that come off as bizarre, strange, or absurd, but presented as totally normal in the narrative. This sense of humor gives the film an edge to cut deep into the hyper-masculine practices in our own society that we have adopted and normalized. Ditching your plans to learn French because the nation is perceived as weak, or refusing to pet your dog as to not show weakness through compassion are just two of the several dozen sharp witted and exaggerated jokes that Stearns writes into the script to build his hyper-masculine world of the dojo. What are initially pitched as methods of improving your karate abilities are underscored with just the right amount of out-there, rational thinking that makes it funny to laugh at until, eventually, it isn’t anymore, and we realize, “Oh … this has taken a dark turn.”

Eisenberg is often typecast as an awkward, dweeb-ish character, and that is no different here, but in this case it’s a perfect typecast. His delivery is smart and precise, but also awkward and socially reclusive, giving Casey this kind of innocence and malleability that makes his transformation believable. His performance is a perfect match for the film and really gives way to the dry humor that characterizes the film.

The whole cast plays their roles this way including the indomitable, aforementioned Sensei who leads the testosterone filled dojo. Nivola plays him stoic, virtuous, and well disciplined to the tune of a well defined masculine creed. He is, for a lack of a better term, a major Chad, and holds beliefs the film wants to critique. His excessive use of force as a means of punishment, sexism towards the lone female student Anna (Imogen Poots), and being the top alpha male are characteristics that eventually rear their head, and show what toxic masculinity can manifest itself as.

But the film rightfully puts the Sensei at odds with the audience. Sensei plays up the masculine role model who starts Casey on his journey with promise of being a fine tuned weapon. Casey naively follows Sensei’s requests, but what he doesn’t understand is the negative transition he undergoes. I think what the film does well is straddle the line between wanting to learn a healthy ‘art of self defense’ and tipping over into complete Brad status. To show this, the film gets dark near the end, a type of seriousness that, upon reflection, I probably should have seen coming with all the dry-pan humor. In spite of that sharp tonal shift, The Art of Self Defense finishes strong.

Oh, and while we’re on the ending, the film has some really funny clever payoffs. Jokes start in act one and come back forty minutes later with new meaning and revelation. It’s top notch humor and great stuff all around.

With a target so easy to make fun of, you might think you already have a beat on the film’s pulse, but The Art of Self Defense’s use of clever humor really makes it a stand out. The film’s surface may indicate a small, quirky comedy, but under it, there is some real substance. I haven’t even mentioned Stearns’ strong sense of direction and style, but it shows there’s an adept ability behind the camera that matches the themes on screen. To put simply, it’s smart, it’s funny, and it’ll make you think twice before you caveman that beer in front of your friends.

3.75/5 Stars