“The Art of Self Defense” Painfully Tackles Toxic Masculinity

If I didn’t know better, I’d say writer-director Riley Stearns wrote the starring role for his new movie “The Art of Self Defense” with one actor in mind: Jesse Eisenberg.

Casey Davies is a loner accountant who struggles to communicate with the bros at work and is ideally situated in a beige life with his pet dachshund. He is shy. He is meek. He is unassuming. He is a tad neurotic. And at first blush, he is the Eisenberg I watched field interviews clumsily at the Brooklyn premiere of the film (by telecast, of course).

While Fandango critics say the role was a perfect fit for Eisenberg, the curly-haired “Zombieland” actor almost rejected the script because it was “too obvious” of a character for him. Luckily, Eisenberg kept reading and fell in love with Stearns “clever” writing and soon realized this was not a movie about a “meek guy who gains confidence,” but instead “more about the obscurities of what masculinity is.”

It’s a clever commentary on the way men treat each other, the actor said.

As a woman, I’m not too keen on the way men treat each other. Honestly, I thought it was a simple wolf pack type of situation where once domination is asserted, everyone has a place.

It was enlightening to see that men also deal with issues like verbal bullying and insecurities  – something one often doesn’t hear about.

What I found particularly interesting about the movie was that despite an apparent attempt to jest at toxic masculinity, there was a noticeable tug of war with detachment from and engagement with the thing it’s making fun of. I can imagine it’s a tug-of-war men deal with in their everyday lives when it comes to living up to “appropriate” masculine behavior.

To set the scene, “The Art of Self Defense” (Rated R) is about milquetoast Casey Davies enrolling in a karate class after being brutally attacked by a faceless motorcycle gang. Under the watchful eye of a charismatic instructor (Alessandro Nivola) and hardcore brown belt Anna (Imogen Poots), Davies gains a newfound sense of confidence for the first time in his life.

His Sensei quickly takes Davies under his wing and encourages him to ditch his dachshund for a German Shephard; replace his classic contemporary music collection for metal, and to seriously consider punching his boss in the throat – which he does.

Nivola is brilliant in this role.

When asked where he drew his character from, he said that he didn’t know much about karate before filming, but that his son took classes when he was 6 or 7 and “his guru Sensei was clearly a loser and only felt like a stud when he was teaching these little kids, and I based my character after him.”

After a typical class or two, things get weird (or weirder).

When Davies attends Sensei’s mysterious night class, he discovers a sinister world full of fraternity, brutality, and hyper-masculinity. There were at least two scenes where I dramatically raised my hands to my eyes and thought, ‘this isn’t happening.’

Spoiler alert: Yes, the dojo is run by a nut job.

While I found the movie to be exciting and entertaining, I also was a little shook. It’s pretty dark. Eisenberg’s early assertion that this movie is not about a meek guy who gains confidence, but more about obscurities in male masculinity is dead on.

It’s downright sadistic if you ask me.

Let me know what you think in the comments below.

“The Art of Self Defense” opens in Dallas on July 19.

Bianca R. Montes

Bianca Montes is an award-winning journalist and former Managing Editor of Preston Hollow People. She currently serves as a Senior Editor with D Magazine's D CEO publication. You can reach her by email at [email protected] or follow her on Instagram @Bianca_TBD. For the latest news, click here to sign up for our newsletter.

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