The People v. The Art of Self-Defense
One of the easiest ways to define an era’s views on masculinity is to look at its depictions on film. There’s a reason the Super-Chrises that dominate the box office don’t behave like John Wayne. Masculinity has an ever-shifting and hotly debated definition but the recent cultural focus on toxic masculinity is where The Art of Self-Defense sets its sights.
Director Riley Stearns (Faults) comes into the film with a clear point of view: toxic masculinity deserves to be made fun of. Because of this, the film leverages its brutal violence and off-beat comedy to great effect as it explores the broken system that creates these men and the damage they leave in their wake. The Art of Self-Defense is a frequently hilarious and consistently uncomfortable parable that presents a scathing condemnation, albeit one from a specific bubble. I greatly enjoyed the ride but your mileage may vary depending on your experience with the subject at hand.
Where this film triumphs is in its moment-to-moment visceral presentation. Jesse Eisenberg instills the protagonist, Casey Davies, with so much torment and ache that it’s impossible not empathize with him as he is broken down after a brutal assault and rebuilt into an aggressive hyper-masculine acolyte—even as his behavior becomes more and more disturbing. On the other end of the spectrum is Alessandro Nivola’s mysterious Sensei, the toxic leader of the karate dojo that Casey seeks out to help him reclaim some power in his life. Every one of his lines drips with the zeal of that alt-right moron you went to high school with. It would be impossible not to laugh at the absurdity of his statements and the conviction with which he says them if they didn’t feel so uncomfortably familiar. This unsettling comic sensibility is brought to a head as the dojo’s mysteries reveal themselves and the savage violence, bubbling under the surface since Casey’s initial assault, is examined in all its horror.
The trouble with this story comes down to the clarity of its message. It would be impossible to watch The Art of Self-Defense and come away with the impression that it condones toxic masculinity. The violence is too brutal and upsetting and the toxic men are too laughable to be seen as anything other than the butt of the joke. But in discussing this film I’ve been unable to shake the impression that Riley Stearns views toxic men similar to how Martin Mcdonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) views racists, too dumb to be taken seriously. The problem with this perspective is that it neglects how harmful the worldviews that they’re laughing at really are. Casey and the rest of the dojo’s explosions of violence are clearly condemned but along the way Stearns can’t help but revel in the silliness of it all. On top of that, there is certainly room for some to watch Casey’s journey and decide that his toxicity can’t be all bad because he ends better than he started, with a more firm grasp on his life and the loss of the fear that paralyzed him. In that sense, this film is very much speaking from a bubble and preaching to the converted.
That said, it isn’t fair to entirely conflate Stearns’ film with Three Billboards’ problematic views on race. It can’t be ignored that toxic masculinity, and the violence that it breeds, is what sets Casey off on his journey in the first place and Stearns film is just as fascinated with exploring how our society molds men into monsters as it is empathizing with them for falling prey to a system that never gave them much of a chance. There’s a level of nuance here that Three Billboards, or even this films’ closest contemporary, Fight Club, lacks and it’s part of what sets The Art of Self-Defense apart as a satire.
The other notable difference maker is the way that it presents women in this world of toxic men. Imogen Poots’ performance as Anna, the dojo’s lone female student, is every bit the masterclass of her male co-stars. Her explosions of violence are just as brutal as the men’s but notably come with motive. She has a genuine reason to be angry and the violence around her has trapped her and forced her to become this combative version of herself. Despite this, the world around her condemns and shames her as it lets the men slide by, only adding fuel to the fire as the talented martial artist is pushed even further to prove her value without losing her sense of self. Her and Casey’s flashes of respect and empathy for one another are the glue that holds the film together, even as these purer instincts of theirs are smothered by the toxicity around them.
The Art of Self-Defense has cult-classic status written all over it, too weird and too singular-minded to ever reach a truly wide audience. However, it is certainly a timely and compelling tale that should serve as a reference point for how we view men in movies, even if its toxic and monstrous characters will hit a little too close to home for some.
See it in theaters and debate the depiction of toxic masculinity with your significant other