'The Art of Self-Defense': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Perfect casting meets a parable about gurus and disciples.

Jesse Eisenberg plays a mugging victim who wants to learn karate in Riley Stearns' offbeat film.

An impossibly timid man seeks to reinvent himself through martial arts in The Art of Self-Defense, the sophomore feature by writer-director Riley Stearns. Like his 2014 debut Faults (also a SXSW premiere), Self-Defense has themes of manipulation and domination built into its premise, a substratum of paranoia that gives the script's comedy an uneasy energy. The casting of Jesse Eisenberg in the lead is both dramatically dead-on and commercially wise, ensuring that at least some attention will be paid to the hard-to-pigeonhole film. (Unjustly, Faults never got off the fest circuit.)

Eisenberg plays Casey, whose unisex name isn't the only less-than-macho thing about him. The guy owns a dachshund, sits on his hands and is learning French, for chrissakes. He's an accountant, of course, mocked by the bros at his office and even by his old-school answering machine at home. ("No one else left you a message," it taunts.) When he is mugged by a crew of mysterious bikers, something snaps.

Casey tries, unsuccessfully, to buy a gun to protect himself — damn those crazed liberals and their waiting-period laws — and then discovers a dojo. He creeps in and observes a lesson, captivated by the quiet authority of the man known only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola, in a part that was made for him). "Karate is a language," he declares, unspooling this metaphor in ways that entrance students but may (intentionally) make viewers giggle. Casey enrolls and becomes so engrossed in his studies that he stays away from work for months.

The film's depiction of this world is half serious, half skewed. The Sensei, properly, has a portrait of his own late master mounted prominently above the sparring mat; but when he calls him "the greatest man who ever lived" and tells of his secret combat technique, our eyebrows inch upward. Sensei is concerned about Casey's motives for learning karate, but gives dubious advice about mental discipline: "From now on, you listen to metal. It's the toughest music there is ... everything must be as masculine as possible."

Sensei's testosterothusiasm makes life tough for Anna (Imogen Poots), who has been his student since the dojo's opening. Despite being more capable than her male classmates, she has yet to attain the level of black belt. She is, though, in Sensei's night class, the elite session at which things get truly hardcore. After rather showily transforming his outward behavior, Casey gets admitted to night class as well. That's when things get weird.

While the beats of its plot may be nothing very new, the tone, language and performances here make Self-Defense its own beast. For Eisenberg's followers, it will be reminiscent of the off-kilter psychological terrain he navigated in Richard Ayoade's 2013 film The Double; here, though, that pic's stylized design and photography are replaced by an intentionally drab realism. With a few small adjustments, this could be the story of a young man discovering himself — finding physical and emotional self-confidence by embracing an ancient discipline and making friends who share his new interests. It may still be that kind of story, in fact. But there will be some bumps on the road to self-actualization.

Production company: End Cue
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Phillip Andre Botelo, Steve Terada, David Zellner
Director-screenwriter: Riley Stearns
Producers: Cody Ryder, Andrew Kortschak, Stephanie Whonsetler, Walter Kortschak
Executive producers: Andrew Karpen, Munika Lay, Kent Sanderson, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Director of photography: Michael Ragen
Production designer: Charlotte Royer
Costume designer:
Editor: Sarah Beth Shapiro
Composer: Heather McIntosh
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)

104 minutes