Sometimes writer-director Riley Stearns’ bleak comedy “The Art of Self-Defense” is a punch to the gut — and sometimes it’s sneakier, like a sleeper hold by which the movie leaves you wondering how you ended up on the floor.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Casey Davies, a wet noodle of a man who seems afraid of life, whether it’s trying to inject himself into his more masculine coworkers’ conversations or conversing with his pet dachshund. One night, a walk to the store for his dog’s kibble turns into a harrowing ordeal, as he is mugged by some motorcycle-riding thugs and beaten to within an inch of his life.
While recovering from his injuries, Casey looks for a way to protect himself from a future attack. His first impulse is to buy a gun, but he learns there’s a waiting period. Then he walks past a karate dojo, and becomes fascinated with the sport — and with the dojo’s leader, who is known by the students only as Sensei (played by Alessandro Nivolo).
Sensei, Casey sees at once, is every idea of manhood that Casey lacks. He’s poised, focused, confident, and capable of taking down the biggest opponent. Sensei also sees something in Casey: A student he can mold into a version of himself.
Casey eagerly learns karate moves, and takes to heart Sensei’s heartfelt mentions of his teacher, Grand Master, who died under mysterious circumstances. Sensei speaks in hushed tones of Grand Master’s greatest karate move, the one-finger punch, a deadly and effective maneuver that Sensei never had the chance to learn.
Casey also finds himself attracted to Anna (Imogen Poots), Sensei’s most devoted student and the teacher of the dojo’s children’s classes. But Casey’s interest in Anna, and his devotion to Sensei, is put to the test when Sensei invites Casey to attend his intense night class.
Stearns, whose previous film was the 2014 horror thriller “Faults,” has created a grittier, less internalized version of “Fight Club” — a red-knuckled examination of masculinity taken to its toxic extremes. Casey’s slow acceptance of Sensei’s training, and his sudden realization of the violent realities behind it, make for a disturbing modern fable that is not for every taste.
So which taste are you? It helps to be a fan of Eisenberg, whose nebbishy neediness in the early parts of the movie is off-putting, but whose blossoming is perfectly calibrated and intriguingly psychotic. Stearns’ movie constantly flips one expectations, and leaves the audience on the mat, looking up for answers.
‘The Art of Self-Defense’
Opened July 12 in select cities; opens Friday, July 19, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City), Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy), Cinemark Jordan Landing (West Jordan), Megaplex at The District (South Jordan) and Megaplex Thanksgiving Point (Sandy). Rated R for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and language. Running time: 104 minutes.