Much has been written in recent years about toxic masculinity, that brand of “manliness” built on aggression, entitlement, and a generous side of sexism. Those of us who took Gender Studies 101 in university are familiar with Judith Butler’s theory that gender is a performance, not the product of pre-ordained, biological destiny. The Art of Self-Defense is an excellent cinematic exploration of what happens when men’s gender performances becoming particularly toxic.
Directed by Riley Stearns, the film centers on Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a mild-mannered accountant who’s sick of being seen as a “beta male” because he gets along well with his boss and loves to cuddle his dachshund.
One fateful evening, Casey gets mugged while returning home from the grocery store. Feeling disempowered, he joins a dojo run by a charismatic, misogynistic and probably sociopathic sensei, played by the perfectly deadpan Alessandro Nivola. As Casey himself explains to his sensei, he’s afraid of other men. He’s been a victim of toxic masculinity, and now Casey declares, “I want to be what scares me.” What Casey doesn’t anticipate is how the process of becoming someone scary could scare him in a whole new way.
The Art of Self-Defense is a dark comedy that satirizes toxic masculinity by bringing out the absurdity of a culture where violence is associated with manliness. However, it is not a send up of karate. The director himself practices martial arts, and the fight scenes were meticulously choreographed by the talented Mindy Kelly. Rather, The Art of Self-Defense illustrates what goes wrong when karate, a sport designed to help students self-protect and minimize damage to others during combat, is co-opted by men just looking for a means of gaining power over weaker people.
Stearns is a highly visual director. The film’s dialogue is sparse. Instead, he allows characters to speak with their facial expressions, which in the case of more expressive cast members like Imogen Poots, is highly effective. Eisenberg’s facial expressions, however, feel a little more inscrutable.
What is most impressive about The Art of Self-Defense is how it uses violent imagery as a tool. The film offers a string of grotesque pictures, but the violence never feels gratuitous. Instead, hyperbolic images of folks having their arms broken or their faces bashed in during class highlight the film’s darkly funny message, toxic masculinity is silly, and it’s literally killing us.
Ultimately, The Art of Self-Defense is an edgy, offbeat comedy that doesn’t pull any proverbial punches. We live in a world where films with coherent messaging are often dismissed as amateurish. Obscurity and ambiguity are associated with great cinema, while closure and a clear moral are deemed hackery. But The Art of Self-Defense demonstrates how (sometimes) you can hit the audience over the head with an argument without sacrificing a story’s impact. What the film lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in satirical clarity.