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The Art Of Self Defense Is Karate-Class-Meets-Cult-Initiation Insanity

Jesse Eisenberg can be counted on to make some interesting career choices. 2014’s The Double (dir: Richard Ayode) was one. South by Southwest hit The Art of Self Defense is another. Both films are billed as black comedies. Both are funny and creepy in equal measure. In this latest film, sophomore director Riley Stearns casts Eisenberg as an ineffectual, mild-mannered (like, to the point of being pathetic) accounting clerk who takes up martial arts following a particularly brutal post-dog-food-run mugging. His character, Casey, barely survives the attack—we find out why much later on.

But back to the karate. After an unsuccessful attempt to arm himself against future attacks the American way (read: with a gun), Casey comes across a small town dojo run by an enigmatic sensei with the power to hold his students in his thrall. Quickly, Casey becomes one of them—despite more than a few signs that there’s something off about Sensei (played by Alessandro Nivola, who somehow manages to avoid blinking for the film’s entire 104-minute run time). As Casey gets drawn further into the power dynamics of the dojo, his entire life begins to change in not-great ways.

Stearns’ aim was to make a movie that addresses the absurdity of toxic masculinity. “I wanted to play around with the notion of what it means to be a man and what it’s like to not consider yourself masculine enough.” What’s far more interesting, however, is that the audience, too, might consider Casey to be coming up short in that department.

The thing is, Casey doesn’t lack traits that are exclusively “masculine”—sure, he’s fearful and meek, but courage and confidence aren’t reserved for men alone. And yet when he tries to change, he mirrors the qualities of the film’s stereotypical toxic male, characteristics that are so obviously unnatural to him. He isn’t a person capable of unjust cruelty (please note that we specified unjust here) and yet he aspires to it—temporarily, anyway. The film’s strength lies in its potential to leave viewers with the opportunity to think about how detrimental rigid definitions of gender are. Also, there are some dark laughs to be had.

The Art of Self Defense also stars Green Room’s Imogen Poots. The film roundhouse kicks its way into theatres on July 19. Check out the trailer below.