I love dark comedies. Call me a cynic, but I feel those best reflect the world we live in. Naturally, when I heard that The Art Of Self-Defense was much darker then the trailer indicated, I had to see it.
This movie made waves in the wake of its world premier at the 2019 South By Southwest Film Festival. The Art Of Self-Defense is about Casey, a lonely man played by Jesse Eisenberg (“Zombieland: Double Tap”, “The Social Network”) who is randomly assaulted on the street and then starts taking karate classes at a local dojo…. but then things take a dark turn.
So, while everyone was filling the multiplexes to see The Lion King remake, or clawing away with their reactions to the Cats movie trailer, I was watching this indie underdog, The Art Of Self-Defense.
An added thrill was seeing the movie at the brand new Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Los Angeles. You can read my tour of this amazing theater here at OC Movie Reviews.
Eisenberg is perfect as Casey, a single man who works a dull accounting job and lives with a small dachshund. He is quickly set up as a shy, meek man who could use some toughening up.
Then when he is savagely beaten by an unknown gang wearing motorcycle helmets, he earns our sympathy. We are right there with Casey as he ponders buying a hand gun and then when he joins the karate school.
The dojo is full of colorful characters that all seem tragically human, flawed in some ways. The chief of these would be Alessandro Nivola (“American Hustle”) as the Sensei.
Nivola’s character is an archetypal misogynist, to the point where that too is a source of dark comedy. These overly macho attitudes are in step with the Karate school setting. The overall tone, works so well. Some may not appreciate humor like this, but I did.
To further solidify this male dominated world, is Anna played by Imogen Poots (“Green Room”, “Fright Night 2011”). Anna is the only female student at the Dojo, so she has to go above and beyond to prove herself…. which she does.
This woman is very skilled at martial arts, yet she appears to be under recognized and ostracized. Anna is given a female changing room, but it is like a small dungeon compared to the men’s locker room.
For me The Art Of Self-Defense lived up to the hype. I will not spoil it with details, but what I will say is there are interesting plot twists throughout and delivers hard hitting moments of dark comedy.
The style of the film’s writer/director Riley Stearns is a fresh voice that I hope to see more of. Some may know of Stearns’s prior feature Faults. This movie was shot in Louisville, Kentucky, this setting helps achieve the nebulous, middle America feel I’m sure the filmmakers were looking for.
In closing, The Art Of Self-Defense is a small scale, dark comedy that is sure to fracture your funny bone. The details of this comedic world will surprise you. Even the Grand Master of the dojo is fully developed, and he only exist as a photo enshrined on the wall.
Curt Wiser is the Writer/Director of the suspense movie Cam-Girl. As a filmmaker, he is happy to step onto the mat and share the work of other artists.