REVIEW: The Art of Self-Defense is one of the year’s best dark comedies.


Writer/Director Riley Stearns takes a look at the dark side of masculinity as it affects a local karate dojo in his shining sophomore feature follow-up to 2014’s Faults.

Like a lot of other kids growing up in the suburbs in 1980’s America, I spent a lot of time in martial arts dojos as a child. I didn’t take to Tae Kwon Do as a child, but I really got into Tang Soo Do and kickboxing/jiujitsu as a teenager. Martial arts encourages a lot of discipline and self-confidence in those looking for structure in their life. The structure and sense of self-worth and control it can give your life is rich and it is possible to take it a bit far. Those elements rang very true when watching Riley Stearns’ newest film, The Art of Self-Defense. You can see how favored students defend their spots and how standing is very important to those who are just starting. That being said, The Art of Self-Defense exists in the kind of hyper-literal dark comedy milieu as the films of Yorgos Lanthimos, where the clipped line delivery adds to creating a sense of unease and tension. But, The Art of Self-Defense is the dark comedy that Yorgos Lanthimos wishes he could’ve made.

The film deals primarily with Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), described as a 35-year old dog owner, who has been brutally beaten by a group of motorcycle-clad thugs. It lands him in a deep depression which makes it difficult for him to even leave his house to buy his dachshund food. Eventually, he comes across a karate dojo and meets Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), a very intense and dedicated karate teacher who takes Casey under his wing once he realizes why Casey is taking martial arts. Along his journey as a karateca, Sensei starts to influence his life in other ways, like influencing him to listen to metal and embrace German language and culture. We as the viewers start to see there is a cult-like mentality behind the dojo, especially when we learn that there is a night class version of the dojo teachings that is much more intense and dedicated and students are only allowed to attend by invitation.

Stearns’ first film, Faults, dealt with a cult deprogrammer and a cult member where you weren’t sure what the agenda is and who is programming whom. The Art of Self-Defense works on a similar level; there’s a basic story but the darker subtext of the film, even coached in comedy, is really riveting. This isn’t like The Foot Fist Way, it’s more like a Fight Club or Taxi Driver with a really dry and hilarious black sense of absurdist humor driving it. It’s easily one of my favorite films this year. Nivola shines as the Sensei and Imogen Poots’ Anna is a great character and performance. She has a great character arc and there is a great dynamic between her character and Eisenberg. The film’s cinematography is also really done well, overall, it’s a great gem and very engrossing. If you are looking for a great dark comedy, give The Art of Self-Defense a try.