We’re all familiar with the uplifting storyline where the weakling becomes strong and no one kicks him around anymore.
The Art of Self-Defense is a disconcerting exaggeration of that theme wherein the mild-mannered guy comes to embody the behaviour he once feared and becomes the aggressor.
As Rotten Tomatoes describes the film, “this is an original dark comedy that takes toxic masculinity to absurd extremes.”
Casey is meek, anxious and socially awkward. A severe beating by a motorcycle gang as he innocently walks home from the store exacerbates his anxiety and fear of the world. On his way to purchase a gun, he passes a dojo and decides to join the Sensei’s karate classes. Casey throws himself into the discipline and, under the watchful eye of both Sensei and hardcore brown belt Anna (the only woman in the dojo), he gains a newfound sense of confidence. This first part of the movie has us expecting an enjoyable empowerment story.
But then the film takes a chilling Fight Club-esque turn. The lessons gradually become more intense and Casey eagerly follows his super-macho Sensei’s advice to pursue hyper-masculinity and dominance in all things. When he is invited to the dojo’s exclusive night classes, Casey becomes privy to a sinister world of brutality and brazen cruelty. He starts to recognize the toxicity of the Sensei’s brand of masculinity and just how warped his teachings are. That puts Casey in danger, squarely in the sights of his mentor, leading to an outlandish ending which wins us over.
The Art of Self-Defense won’t be for everyone as it’s not intended to be a crowd-pleaser, but instead an examination of extreme notions of masculinity. Jesse Eisenberg is perfect in the role of the passive character whose Sensei coaxes out his hidden monster. There are some uncomfortable testosterone-fueled scenes, but the movie does have its amusing and dryly-funny moments.
The Art of Self-Defense runs from Friday Nov. 22 to Wednesday Nov. 27 at 7:30 nightly at the Salmar Classic Cinema.