Film Review: THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE (USA 2019) ***1/2

The Art of Self-Defense Poster
Trailer

A man is attacked at random on the street. He enlists at a local dojo, led by a charismatic and mysterious sensei, in an effort to learn how to defend himself.

Director:

Riley Stearns

Writer:

Riley Stearns

One must admire and give writer/director Riley Stearns credit for going against the natural flow of the typical movie.  Though described as a dark comedy, the film turns so dark towards the last third, that it can hardly be described as a comedy any longer but some psychological mind-blower.   The story turns completely unpredictable with a plot twist that is, when one looks back quite obvious, but director Stearns has steered his audience completely in a direction that they definitely will not see what is coming next.  At the same time, the hapless hero turns and changes into a selfless all-conquering hero, sacrificing everything he has for others, a selfless act while defeating his villain in a duel to the death.

The plot revolves around a mild-mannered accountant called Casey (Jesse Eisenberg).  One evening while returning home after buying dog food, he is beaten up by a motorcycle gang and left for dead.  In hospital recovering, his boss Grant gives him a few days off.  He comes across a Karate class and enrols in the day class while learning the art of Karate, eventually excelling in it.  But it is his character that is in question not his fighting ability.  He learns that the has to overcome his cowardly attitude. This he does, in what are the film’s most hilarious moments.

Jesse Eisenberg apparent took Karate classes a few weeks for preparation for this role, though he has said that he took it as child.  He is convincing enough.  Though Eisenberg usually takes roles where he speaks an incredible amount of words per minute as in THE SOCIAL NETWORK and THE HUMMMINGBIRD PROJECT, this is one film where he has little dialogue.  The film often plays its dark comedy dead-pan with as little words spoken as well.  Whenever a dramatic conversation comes along, director Stearn often turns off the music and background noise.  The effect is an uncomfortable silence punctuated by the script’s dialogue.

Stearn’s wife, actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead had signed on to star in the film in 2016.  But the couple separated in 2017 with the result that Winstead is no longer in the cast.  Making a film is a lot of work and one can assume that the work must have got into conflict with their relationship.  The film though appearing totally male-chauvinist is in reality pro-feminist.  Karate is described in the film as the art of achieving total masculine perfection with none of the other gender having to play any part.  Of course, the concept is wrong which the film thankfully proves at the end.  The film is also quite homo-erotic especially in two scenes, where the male karat students do cool-down exercises bare-bodied massaging each other or when practising certain moves also with little clothes on.

As such, THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE might turn out a hard-sell.  Besides a few uncomfortable scenes, audiences will find it difficult in the film’s transition from comedy to psychological thriller but those willing to accept the change will find Stearn’s film a daring, bold and refreshing change from the norm.  The film is a winner!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Bms6Hba-3A

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