I’ve said (many times) that when it comes to movies it’s the unexpected small gems I love most. The Art of Self-Defense (2019), starring Jesse Eisenberg, is definitely a small (dark) gem, and doubly unexpected.
Firstly, unexpected in the ordinary sense of having no idea what the film would be or that it would be any good. But secondly, because I’d recently seen Eisenberg in American Ultra (2015), which I saw as another unexpected small gem. This movie’s artwork (as you see) suggested to me it might be similar.
It couldn’t be more different, except that both are really good small gems starring Jesse Eisenberg. I’m thinking he has good taste in picking scripts.
I liked him in Zombieland (2009); The Social Network (2010); Now You See Me (2013), which I really enjoyed; American Ultra, already mentioned, and others I haven’t mentioned. (And now, obviously, this one.)
There are actors I find worth keeping an eye on because they tend to appear in small gems. In all cases, they’re talented and skilled actors who elevate anything they’re in, which is a part of what makes a gem shine.
(But make no mistake, it’s mostly the writing. The directing also plays a big role. Actors, in some sense, are the frosting on a cake baked by others.)
One actor I noticed this way some time ago is John Cusack. One just needs to consider Tapeheads (1988), Gross Pointe Blank (1997), Pushing Tin (1999), Being John Malkovich (1999), High Fidelity (2000), or Identity (2003), to see what I mean about small gems. (There are many I didn’t list.)
It seems to run in the family. His sister, Joan Cusack is also someone who appears in worthwhile films, and it’s surprising how many times they’ve appeared together: Sixteen Candles (1984), Grosse Pointe Blank, High Fidelity, and more.
[That said, Joan isn’t quite the litmus test that John is for indicating an off-beat small gem that particularly appeals to my tastes. However, like John (and Jake and Maggie, and now Jesse), her talent and skill and sheer energy level elevate anything she is in.]
Speaking of which, another brother-sister combination, Jake Gyllenhaal and Maggie Gyllenhaal. They’re both talented and skilled actors who make anything they’re in better. (Christopher Walken is another such as this.)
[For party game, in which films have combinations of these actors appeared? Have Jake and Maggie appeared together? Have the two men, or the two women ever appears together? How about all four?]
My primary ask with art is, “take me somewhere new!” That’s increasingly difficult as a specific art form ages. Narrative forms are especially a challenge; there are only so many coherent songs and stories.
As I said at the beginning, based on the artwork, I was expecting it might be an action-thriller somewhat like American Ultra. I thought maybe Eisenberg was reaching for a career as an off-beat action star.
Instead, The Art of Self-Defense, is a small, rather dark, somewhat stylized, comedy that reminded me a bit of Blood Simple (the Coen brothers first film). I thought there were also some faint Fight Club overtones.
It’s written and directed by Riley Stearns, who is a fairly new kid on the block. This seems to be his second major film. I do believe films written and directed by the same person are better. They’re more personal stories that person wanted to tell, not jobs assigned by someone else.
The film centers on socially stunted, painfully timid, Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), an accountant. (There’s a recent Ben Affleck movie that reverses the trope coding accountants as dull and dry, but here the trope is true.)
Casey lives a painfully lonely existence both at work, where he utterly fails to fit in, and at home, where he lives with his Dachshund.
One night, finding he’s out of dog food, Casey walks to his local store. On the way home he’s mugged and badly beaten by the small gang of masked assailants on motorcycles who’ve been plaguing the city.
[I don’t think I’ve ever been fooled by the visual trick of putting a woman in motorcycle leathers and a helmet to make the viewer think it’s a man. This time was no exception, and it did signal a piece of the story’s punchline to me.]
Casey is traumatized and, after leaving the hospital, first seeks to buy a gun. The gun-buying scene is worth the price of admission. It’s droll in the extreme, very funny, and devastatingly on point. Despite Casey’s clear incompetence, buying the gun is no problem,… but there’s a waiting period for getting the gun.
One night at work Casey had laboriously photocopied all the pages of a men’s magazine he found on someone’s desk. (He carefully replaces it exactly as found.) Looking at those pages after his visit to the gun shop, Casey spots an ad for a local martial arts karate dōjō, and the next day he visits it.
Character and conflict established, the second act is Casey’s collision with “Sensei” (Alessandro Nivola), the enigmatic karate master who owns and runs the dōjō.
Sensei gives Casey a free trial class, which goes well enough that Casey signs up for lessons and decides against the gun. [Keep an eye on guns. The added 11th rule of the dōjō is “Guns are for weaklings.” This isn’t coincidence; it’s foreshadowing.]
Casey also meets the only female student, Anna (Imogen Poots), a brown belt who is expecting to be promoted to black belt at the next ceremony. Anna currently teaches the children’s classes; as a black belt, she’d teach adults.
But Sensei does not promote Anna, because (as it turns out) Sensei doesn’t view women as adequate.
There is, in fact, a strong sense of suppressed homo-eroticism in Sensei and the culture he promotes. In his special night class, which Casey is ultimately invited to, once the class ends, students remove their gi and give each other muscle massages.
Sensei apologizes to Casey that it’ll have to be Anna who partners with Casey. Apologizes because a woman’s hands are weak. Anna’s dressing room, by the way, is a storage closet, and it took her beating the crap out of someone who tried to assault her that earned that much.
The special night class, and Casey getting to know Anna, is where things begin to turn dark.
Casey, despite misgivings, has gone along with Sensei, and in doing so earned the attention that bought the invitation. In truth, what’s happened is that Sensei has found another perfect victim.
The night class, for one thing, is much more brutal. Casey realizes where the blood spots he’s noticed on the mat come from. When a day student shows up uninvited, Sensei uses him in a demonstration that shatters his elbow.
Anna, in one scene, brutally demolishes the student Sensei did promote to black belt instead of her. Sensei is fine with this. Casey’s misgivings build.
Then, despite his training thus far, while out shopping Casey has a bad encounter with a guy who thoughtlessly and casually dings his door in a parking lot. Casey tries to stand up for himself and fails and is humiliated.
This, and the murder of his dog, take us into final act.
[Killing the dog is a rare act for a writer (the general rule is, “The dog never dies”), but it’s sometimes used to indicate the villain is especially evil. Killing the dog is even higher on the Evil Scale than Casually killing a henchman.]
I really don’t want to spoil this one, so I won’t.
There is an understated bit I have to point out. Sensei speaks of his grandmaster, who killed his worst enemies with a signature finger-punch-through-forehead move. Sensei regrets he was never taught the technique before the master was killed. Suffice to say Casey apparently reinvents it.
In part, the film juxtaposes strength-for-attack versus strength-for-defense, although it goes further than that. This isn’t a story that should leave you thinking, “Maybe Sensei was right.” It’s pretty clear he’s not.
There is a reversal in the end. It’s somewhat echoed in how, in their first meeting, Sensei casually dismisses Casey’s name as a bit feminine. Later it turns out that Sensei’s actual name is Leslie, which, as Casey asserts, is arguably more feminine. It echoes both the deception and the reversal.
I’ll also say, despite its dark edges, it is a comedy, and it has a happy ending. The true meaning of karate is restored. (A meaning we once knew culturally as, “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.” Karate is a big stick.)
Along those lines, it doesn’t glorify what gore and violence there is (no loving slo-mo closeups, no lingering). It just tells the story it needs to.
I’ve mentioned the idea of story space. Films like The Art of Self-Defense show that story space isn’t exhausted (just getting depleted a bit).
I give this a Wow! rating. Definitely recommended, (although the usual caveat applies about taste).
Even the end credits are kinda cute and fun.
Stay small, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.