From the first moment we see Casey, the shut-down loner played by Jesse Eisenberg in “The Art of Self-Defense,” it’s clear that he is on a spectrum, though exactly what spectrum remains to be revealed. The movie is concerned with the roots, as well as the seductive rewards, of violence. The news that it brings is less than startling—testosterone turns out to be the prime culprit—but this bleak, absurdist comedy by Riley Stearns has its own distinctive coloration. The tone is a delicate blend of solemn, droll and ominous, and Casey is an intriguing hero, a quintessential dweeb with an untapped wellspring of rage.
The tapping starts one night when he gets mugged, just like that—or so it seems—by a motorcycle gang. Before the attack the hero is pinched and hunched, as only Mr. Eisenberg can make him; the actor’s specialty is characters with a curvature of the psyche that’s expressed by the spine. Then Casey becomes a man on a transformative quest.
His first stop is a gun shop, where a clerk’s earnest warnings about the perils of owning firearms sound like those medical disclaimers in TV commercials. (The action is set several decades in the past, when gun control wasn’t the flashpoint it is today.) Casey’s next stop is a neighborhood karate studio where, posted on a wall below a list of 10 rules, is an 11th rule: “Guns are for the weak.” What, then, will make him strong? Learning to inflict a combination of kicks that feel like punches and punches that feel like kicks, according to the dojo’s sensei, a laconic narcissist played wittily by Alessandro Nivola, plus sustained immersion in heavy metal and fluency in German rather than the effete French that Casey has been studying. (The sensei also disapproves of Casey’s name, which he considers feminine, and his dog, which is, in fact, a Germanic breed, but a dachshund rather than a shepherd.)
Like Mr. Stearns’s debut feature, “Faults,” this second film deals with cult behavior. (Both films also begin with their protagonists sitting alone in restaurants.) The cult meets at the dojo, where the sensei’s acolytes administer and absorb levels of punishment that evoke the violence of “Fight Club,” though, mercifully, not all that often. Masculinity is prized above all else, and the best line in the script refers to the dojo’s only female student, an angel-faced, ferociously aggressive young woman named Anna (a fine performance by Imogen Poots). She will never become a black belt, the sensei tells Casey: “I realize now that her being a woman will prevent her from ever being a man.”
It will indeed, though the male students being men doesn’t prevent them from feeling attracted to one another. As you might suspect, and as Casey soon discovers, the masculine ideal takes a beating during the course of his martial education. So does the cause of plausibility in a plot that grows elaborate to the point of unintended absurdity—the dojo and its sensei are even more sinister than they seem—and in a resolution that rings hollow, notwithstanding a tribute to Indiana Jones along the way. Yet the film as a whole feels audacious and original, a case study of violence begetting more of the same, and Mr. Eisenberg is ideally cast as the soul of fearfulness, as well as the embodiment of mixed motives that include courage, lust for power and revenge. “I wish I could wear my belt all the time,” Casey tells the sensei ardently after winning a yellow one. Little does he know that the hard part will be taking it off.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at email@example.com
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