In his latest film, director Riley Stearns takes on deceptive ideologies to shock audiences with humor and horror.
In our modern age of fast information and lack of fact-checking, it has become easier than ever to indoctrinate and brainwash populations. This is seen in the rise of the Alt-Right in particular, as well as the general rise of extremist groups online — where misinformation spreads to millions of unsuspecting people. There are a few ways to combat this spread, but one way is through informative and entertaining art.
Riley Stearns’ dark comedy film, The Art of Self Defense, combats deceptive ideologies with deadpan humor and clear metaphors. Using these methods and some great central performances, Stearns manages to make a hilarious and timely film that will shock audiences with laughter and horror.
The film follows Casey, played by Jesse Eisenberg, a 30-something introvert aimlessly flowing through life as an accountant. One night, Casey is brutally mugged and left with physical and emotional scars. Tired of being too scared to step outside, Casey finds confidence in a strip mall karate dojo.
The dojo is run by Alessandro Nivola’s comically-serious Sensei, who takes Casey under his wing to teach him how to defend himself and become more masculine. The spark he sees in Casey is not that of a skilled martial artist, but an easily persuaded follower.
The Art of Self Defense explores the dark sides of toxic masculinity, harmful cult-like behavior, and even comments on gun violence in America. While all of these subjects are bleak, and have been the basis for countless serious films, director Riley Stearns has gone in the opposite direction. He instead has made a darkly-comedic film — one that finds equal amounts of humor and horror in the ridiculous yet sadly familiar scenarios it depicts.
The performances and pacing of the film are similar to the style of Yorgos Lanthimos’ films, like The Lobster or The Favourite. Characters speak in deadpan tones, spouting laughably informational and detailed dialogue. The comedy is mostly dry, with laughs coming from the unusual nature of the performances.
Stearns manages to find his own voice, taking Yorgos’ basic template and making something a bit more outrageous and obvious. His unique flourishes can be seen in the main performances from Eisenberg and Nivola, with both actors knowing when to emote and when to remain emotionless. Eisenberg especially manages to convey some character in his stilted performance, making it easy to sympathize with him.
Eisenberg’s performance is the emotional backbone of the film, and what makes the tonal shift in the middle work so well. The first half of Self Defense is a fairly goofy, if odd, comedy full of memorable characters and jokes. On its own, this section of the film is fun, bizarre, and worthy of a cult following.
The second half presents a darker, more thematically-charged side to the film, which took me by surprise. It shows the ulterior motives of the dojo, which begins to feel more like a cult than an instructional institution. The film itself turns in a very intense manner, and left me unsure whether I should find its events funny or sickening. After seeing the rest of the film, I believe it’s a little bit of both.
The way the plot escalates is comically ridiculous, yet the way it plays out in the film is engaging and somewhat horrific. This is thanks to the development of Casey, who we can easily invest in — we want to see what happens to him. Because of this engagement, and the skill with which the film balances its conflicting tones, The Art of Self Defense becomes an infinitely more interesting film.
At the heart of the dojo’s mission is a promotion and celebration of toxic masculinity. Everything must be masculine: you should listen to heavy metal, you should own a German dog, you should change your name and identity to seem more manly. The way Casey is indoctrinated into this way of thinking is very similar to the way people are brainwashed into cults, or convinced that harmful communities are worth joining.
The film explores how vulnerable people can easily embody harmful ideologies in situations where a sense of community and simple confidence boosters are enough to convince them that changing their identity is acceptable. While the film understands how scary these ideologies and their practices are, it also understands that their hypocrisy and unwavering dedication to falsehoods is comical.
It understands that making something ridiculous — like turning an 80’s style karate dojo into a metaphor for the harms of toxic masculinity — can expose what’s wrong with it, while also taking away its power.