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SXSW 2019: “The Art of Self-Defense” Review

“The Art of Self-Defense” had its world premiere at this year’s SXSW in the Narrative Spotlight section. It’s billed as a comedy, but it’s so much more than that. The movie was written and directed by Riley Stearns. He previously wrote and directed “Faults,” his feature debut, which also premiered at SXSW in 2014. Stearns was present to talk briefly about the film before the screening and to answer audience questions afterward.

The movie stars Jesse Eisenberg as Casey Davies, a timid 35-year-old man who is, frankly, pathetic. Casey isn’t well-liked by his coworkers, has no romantic life to speak of and doesn’t seem to have any hobbies. One night he’s attacked by a biker gang and left for dead, which lands him in the hospital. The traumatic incident makes him fear the outside world even more. And then he stumbles upon a karate academy.

Casey watches a class with interest, then sees how it could help him possibly become more confident — the man he wants to be. He signs up and, before you know it, karate becomes his whole life; it’s a true obsession. But his dojo is a little unorthodox, as is the man who runs it, who only goes by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). There’s another student named Anna (Imogen Poots) who also intrigues Casey, because she’s the only woman at the dojo and the teacher for the children’s’ class, yet she’s not a black belt.

It’s safe to say that “The Art of Self-Defense” gets weirder and darker as it goes on, and it won’t be for everyone. And remember how I said it was more than a comedy up top? Well, it’s a very dark comedy. And it has threads of drama, action and thriller as well. If you thought a comedy couldn’t get seriously violent, you thought wrong.

The Art of Self Defense
Writer/Director Riley Stearns (R) Photo Credit: Jackie Ruth/Shuffle Online

One of my favorite things about “The Art of Self-Defense” is the dialogue, though. It’s delivered by every single actor in such a deadpan, matter-of-fact way, which makes the whole tone of the film different from anything I’ve ever seen. Sure, there have been comedies with serious characters saying funny things in a serious way (think “Office Space” or “Napoelon Dynamite”), but not to this level. It’s amazing to watch, and the SXSW audience found it laugh-out-loud funny over and over again.

Eisenberg was perfectly cast as Casey — though I hesitate to call it typecast — because he can play both sides of the character. There is a Casey who is quiet, weak and tragic, but there is also a Casey who is strong and confident. We’ve seen the first side from Eisenberg in a number of roles, including “Zombieland” and “The Double,” but we’ve only seen a sliver of the latter type of character when he played the arrogant Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.”

There are a number of messages within the film. There’s some really obvious anti-gun sentiment in the first third of the film (and repeated throughout in a dojo rules sign). The first instance is just a character reciting statistics about how dangerous guns can be, but it paints a clear picture. There’s also the more nuanced take on “misplaced masculinity and society’s expectations of what men are,” according to Stearns in the follow-up Q&A. Casey feels less-than because he isn’t muscle-laden or violent, but is that really the measure of a man? And despite there only being one female main character, there is commentary on sexism, misogyny and being a woman.

The Art of Self Defense

Stearns also established several other things during the Q&A session that followed the screening. “The Art of Self-Defense” is a personal movie to Stearns, partially because he practices jiu jitsu, but also as a look at his own thoughts and fears. When asked why he chose karate instead of jiu jitsu or another martial art, he said it’s because karate is “more visceral than other disciplines.”

When you watch the film, you might also notice a lack of modern technology. That, too, was on purpose. Stearns said that some who watched the film felt that it takes place in the 1990s sometime, which is fine by him. According to the writer/director, he wanted to “stay away from a specific time period…it’s intentionally timeless.” He especially enjoyed the lo-fi, analog aesthetic of it.

If any or all of that sounds appealing to you, then don’t hesitate to catch this movie when it arrives in theaters. Its expected release date is June 21, 2019.

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