There’s a defining moment late in the second act of the Fantasia 2019 selection, THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE, that confirmed all of my formulating comparisons to 1999’s FIGHT CLUB. It’s a twist you should see coming, but if not, consider this a spoiler warning. You may remember a scene in FIGHT CLUB where Brad Pitt and Edward Norton pull a convenience store clerk named Raymond into an alley at gunpoint and demand that he hand over his wallet. While doing so, Pitt’s Tyler Durden tells Raymond that he’s going to die and asks him what he used to study in school. He asks him pointedly, what he wanted to be. Raymond answers that he wanted to be a veterinarian. To this, Durden replies that he will be checking in on him and if he’s not on his way to being a veterinarian in 6 weeks, he’ll be killed. As Raymond runs away, Durden explains that tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond’s life. The implication is that through fear of death, Raymond will find a newfound resolution and motivation in life to pursue his dreams. You can watch the full scene here for now. Durden’s “homework” exercise as he calls it is deranged, but he sees it as benevolent. He thinks he’s giving Raymond a gift. Alessandro Nivola’s character of Sensei believes much the same in THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE when he orders his karate students to beat unprotected male pedestrians in the nighttime streets within an inch of their lives. It’s survival of the fittest. They will either learn to protect themselves or be weeded out of society. It just so happens that Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) after being just such a victim, unknowingly seeks out the same karate dojo that victimized him to teach him to protect himself. But he doesn’t just want to learn to protect himself. He wants to become what he fears. This of course is music to Sensei’s ears. It’s the entire foundation of his deranged philosophy.
There is quite a lot that THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE is trying to say about the insidiousness and brashness of the seemingly unchecked and unabashed rise in toxic masculinity in today’s society. In Trump’s America, and his sadly effective persuasion and control by fear, these qualities are popularized and embraced. Strength and might are more important than intelligence and compassion. The bully is more celebrated than ever. Where FIGHT CLUB tried to warn us that a new generation of males were radicalizing their masculinity, THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE attempts to defuse the bomb by showing us how absurd this mindset is. The problem is that the film doesn’t know its audience and I don’t think its message is very effective. I worry that it will reinforce some of the gender dynamics that put us in this situation, particularly with how the ending of the film portrays a male influenced shift to female gender control and how specific values, like compassion, are gender assigned as female in society and need to be taught to men by women.
I assume that the movie is attempting to make complex themes digestible to males viewers who need to hear it; to point out humorously how misguided they are. Unfortunately, these men might miss the point altogether, or, more likely, are smart enough to see the manipulation, that they are being laughed at, and become more entrenched in their thinking as a result. The rest of us, like myself, will likely find fault in the nuance and question the film’s entire reason for being. Furthermore, it’s not even funny when it’s trying to be. I’ve been calling the film THE KARATE KID meets FIGHT CLUB by way of Wes Anderson and Yorgos Lanthimos. The latter two director/writer influences are apparent in THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE’s deadpan and matter-of-fact delivery. This heightens the absurdity, but does little to deliver the message, especially when characters we are supposed to identify with do terrible things of their own that we are seemingly supposed to forget, because lessons were learned. This style works well when the film seems to be taking the absurdist approach with Casey, much like Johnathan Carter’s and Crispin Glover’s take on BARTELBY, to show that he is totally out of place in nearly all aspects of his life. But when nearly every character seems as disconnected as he does, it loses weight. But perhaps the intent of director Riley Stearn is to portray everyone in this story as their own version of a malleable, mindless, influence-able drone. I just don’t think it works here.