The Art of Self-Defense

First Hit: Oddly compelling, crudely violent, and situationally funny are my takeaways from this film.

Jesse Eisenberg is an intense person. One look at his eyes, the way he moves them, the way he looks at anything, the intensity is the primary projected feeling.

In this story, Jesse plays Casey, a quiet accountant, working at a somewhat sizeable innocuous firm. We see Casey make awkward attempts to talk with three other men in the break room. These men talk about things in a silly testosterone way: “Let’s do some pushups,” and talking about their sexual exploits. In these gatherings, Casey has nothing to offer, stammers, and leaves the break room with a tail between his legs sort of way.

He goes home to his dachshund, his closest friend. One night, needing to get dog food, he walks to the store and is attacked by a group of people on motorcycles. They almost kill him. Having lots of sick time and unused vacation time, he stays home to heal. Hesitantly he ventures out of his home and walks into a Karate dojo run by a Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).

Casey finds that taking classes helps his self-esteem, and he begins to gain confidence. However, there seems to be an underlying agenda in the dojo. Anna (Imogen Poots), who is a brown belt (one under black), teaches the children classes but appears to be in disfavor with sensei. We don’t know why.

This disfavor is very pronounced when sensei gives awards out (new colored belts and stripes) on a celebration day. Favoring brown belt Thomas (Steve Terada) over Anna for black belt, Anna eventually gets revenge by beating Thomas to a pulp in one of their dojo practice sessions.

Eventually, Casey feels the power of his newly acquired yellow belt and takes over the testosterone boys club at work, punches his boss in the throat, and puts female breasts on his computer screen’s desktop. Of course, he gets fired from his job. In addition to this, by prompting from sensei, he changes the language he’s learning from French to German. French, says his sensei, is a loser feminine language and German is more powerful and masculine.

Then, Casey, prompted by sensei, kills an unsuspecting stranger because sensei tells him he’s sure that this man is one of the people who mugged him months earlier. This and the killing of his dog leads Casey to start investigating sensei and his cohorts.

This is where the film spins slightly different from its original axis and heads in a somewhat different direction. The question becomes, will Casey find his strength by standing up for his version of truth and justice, or will he go his own way and become a law-abiding citizen?

Eisenberg is always interesting to watch. I don’t often relate to his intensity, but he never holds back on being someone who is thinking and thinking deeply. He does this well in this story. Nivola is rather good as sensei. He brings a required level of force, making this role believable. Poots was excellent as the women who wouldn’t be denied in her quest to live unafraid. Terada is outstanding as sensei’s favorite student. Riley Sterns both wrote and directed this film. I thought the concept was good and some of the scenes superbly funny and intense.

Overall: I didn’t leave the theater with a positive feeling.