As a rule, I generally try to go check out every major movie. Partly because I’m an obsessive, partly because I just love movies, and partly because I feel like I owe it to the site to talk about whatever big thing is out. And yet, I really just couldn’t bring myself to go check out the Lion King. I’m very off board for these Disney remakes, and every little thing I heard about that movie seemed to indicate that I’d just have a pretty wretched time with it. Which, I suppose could have led to some interesting writing, but I decided to practice a little self-care this week instead, and go watch something that I actually thought I might like. And, I’m very glad I did, because after seeking out something a little smaller, something made with some modicum of passion unlike the Lion King, I came across the pitch-black little comedy that really felt like something special. They probably aren’t going to be making movies like this for much longer, at least available to go see in a movie theater, so I’m going to take any opportunity to check out a wierdo little comedy in theaters while I still can. Especially if it can be as biting and clever as this little flick.
The film follows a man named Casey Davies, a meek accountant doing his best to live in a hyper-masculine world, terrified of everything around him. He keeps his head down at work, letting his tougher co-workers boss him around, and then just heads home to spend the evening quietly sitting with his small dog. But, his life changes forever one night when walking home from a pet-food store, and he’s jumped by some people on motorcycles. They beat Casey to the point of unconsciousness, and he’s brought to the hospital. Casey is then allowed to have several months of vacation to recuperation, physically and mentally, and while doing so he comes across something interesting. A small karate dojo near his house draws hi attention for the first time, and Casey is almost immediately drawn in by the sense of power he feels from these practitioners. He initially enters a children’s class, but the leader of the dojo, a man only known as Sensei, tells Casey about the adult class, and urges him to join. Casey is a little put off at first, unsure of himself, but he quickly starts to feel at home in the dojo and the community that has spread through it.
However, pretty quickly things start to get a little strange. The Sensei takes a special interest in Casey, and continues to try and make him a more masculine man, telling him what music to listen to, to get a better dog, and to generally start acting like an asshole. And, after taking him up on some of these ideas, Casey is fired from his job, and ends up working at the dojo, doing their books. Which is when Casey admits that he only joined the dojo because he’d been jumped, leading Sensei to supposedly track down one of the assailants, and encourage Casey to attack him. Casey agrees, and severely beats the man, all while Sensei videotapes him. This starts to get Casey suspicious, and that feeling increases when he arrives home and finds that someone has killed his dog, and replaced it was a German Shepherd. Casey realizes that the Sensei is insane, and is essentially running a cult, and decides to expose him. He breaks into the dojo late one night and finds that a secret room in the dojo has a working crematorium, and plenty of videos of various members beating and killing people. He also learns that the people who beat him in the beginning of the film were members of the dojo, out looking for people to break and draw in. So, Casey decides to challenge the Sensei to a battle to the death, which the Sensei agrees to. But, Casey just shoots him in the head, ending his reign of terror, and turning the dojo over to the most talented member, a woman named Anna who the Sensei had been purposefully treating poorly the entire time.
Going into this film, I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew that it was a dark comedy, that a lot of film people I respect on the internet had given it good reviews, and that the trailer looked ridiculous. But, I don’t think I was ready for something this satiric, this cutting, and this willing to look at the world of toxic masculinity and cut it down to size. On its surface, the film is just a look at people taking karate too seriously, with a ridiculous Sensei pushing people to become absurd masculine stereotypes. But, the more the film goes on, the more you realize that there’s something far more sinister afoot, which really starts to make sense once you see that the director, Riley Stearns, previously made the terrific film Faults, which all revolved around cults, and the type of people susceptible to joining them. Which you would think would be a tough balancing act to pull off, weird comedy and dark examination of cult mentality, and yet this movies pulls it off beautifully. The entire film is soaked in a strange aesthetic, occasionally feeling like a more intense version of a Wes Anderson film, with everyone putting in purposefully awkward performances that belies the darkness that the movie eventually dives full force into.
Because this movie really does reach some incredibly dark places. And made all the more dark by the fact that it’s honestly probably not too far from reality. This is a movie all about how fragile a certain type of man is, so desperate to be perceived as masculine and powerful that they’ll do anything. More and more we’re hearing stories about lonely, mentally unstable white men being radicalized into purporting acts of hatred and violence, all because they’ve been led to believe that they’re outsiders, and that they need to be a certain way, and punish those who have treated them poorly, regardless of if that treatment is in their heads or not. This toxic masculinity, an obsession with being a misogynist and blaming all of your problems on those around you who are different, is one of the most dangerous and daunting things happening in the world at the moment, and stories like this remind you that it’s just going to keep happening. Angry white men are some of the most gullible people on Earth, and it seems like a miracle that a majority of us don’t end up in insane cults like this, causing death and destruction to prove that they’re tough guys instead of the victims that they’ve always thought themselves as.
The Art of Self-Defense was written and directed by Riley Stearns and released by Bleecker Street, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk