The Art of Self-Defense Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

Casey Davis (Jesse Eisenberg) is a modest and shy office worker. At thirty-four, he lives alone, and his loneliness is brightened up only by a dachshund dog. Colleagues at work do not put him in a penny and look at Casey as if he were an empty place. True, for some reason the boss favors Casey, but because of this, colleagues who don’t like the boss begin to hate the guy at all.

And then on another not too joyful day, Casey went to the store in the evening for dog food – he forgot to buy it in the afternoon – on the way he was attacked by a group of some frostbitten motorcyclists, and Casey was beaten so that he was forced to spend several days in the hospital.

After leaving the hospital, Casey resolutely went to the gun store and said that he wanted to buy himself a gun for self-defense. However, it turned out that in order to purchase weapons, various papers must first be filled out, after which the papers must pass the appropriate verification, and this will take several days. So Casey will have to wait.

At some point, walking down the street, Casey came across a dojo – a martial arts hall. Inside the dojo, a man in a black kimono with a black belt was conducting karate training. After the training was over, Casey asked the trainer, whom everyone called Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), if he could join the group and start training, to which Sensei answered in the affirmative.

Casey began to go to training, but gradually began to understand that this was not an ordinary karate school. This is not MacDojo, as such schools are ironically called, this is something completely different.


When you read the announcement of this film, it seems that you understand well what awaits you there. A lonely depressed clerk who is attacked by some thugs wants to gain confidence in himself, for which he went to a karate school. There he will begin to learn the lessons of courage, learn something, he will have confidence in his abilities, after which he will force everyone to respect himself at work, and he will be able to fight back the scumbags. But where all this will lead him – we do not know, they will show it to us in the film.

But I knew that this is not a mainstream film, this is an independent project and independent director Riley Stearns, and since good actors Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots are also playing here, I decided to still try to watch this picture …

As Bublik the cat rightly pointed out, this is a very unusual movie. And if at the beginning of the film it seems that you understand what to expect here, and for some time events develop in the same expected direction, however, the picture begins to change the manner of narration quite abruptly, and if it all starts as a depressive drama, then later the style migrates to side of an action-packed thriller with elements of black humor, and at the moment when you are trying to understand where all this will lead the director in the end, an extremely unexpected ending comes, which even received applause from Bublik and me – it was great done.

“The Art of Self-Defense” is a difficult film to perceive and quite “multilayered”. On the one hand, there are various action-packed turns of events, on the other hand, there is some satirical overtones here.

From the very beginning, Sensei demonstrates commitment to the cult of masculinity and tries to educate his students in a similar spirit. At the same time, among the students in the group there is one and only woman Anna (Imogen Poots), who has a brown belt and has achieved great success in martial arts. However, it is clear that Sensei treats her with some disdain: martial arts, according to Sensei, are for real men, and a woman in karate is just some kind of prank. Although, in fact, Anna is the best in the group in terms of skill.

And, in general, it is clearly seen with what irony the director himself treats this cult of brutal masculinity, and all sorts of rituals, the strict observance of which Sensei requires, especially considering who this Sensei eventually turned out to be. There, of course, it would be interesting to talk about why and how he came to such a life (there are certain clues in the picture for this, which at first say little, but then line up in a clear picture), but we will not do this, so as not to spoil it for those who may want to see this film.

Jesse Eisenberg, who, as a well-known and in-demand actor in the mainstream, also willingly participates in low-budget auteur films, here plays a role that fits him perfectly: a gray, lonely, dull office clerk who drives melancholy just by his appearance. However, this character goes through interesting successive transformations, and Jesse, whose acting abilities are quite diverse, these changes in the personality of the character showed very interesting.

Sensei was played by Allesandro Nivola. And his image turned out to be very difficult. At first it seems that Sensei is such a classic “guru of martial arts”: demanding of his students, but fair. However, there it quickly becomes clear that something is wrong with Sensei, and Nivola played this character great.

Before that, I had seen the actress Imogen Poots in two films – The Long Fall and The Farewell Quartet, and I immediately remembered her there: an interesting character actress. Here she has a somewhat unexpected role: Anna is very fighting and strong-willed, but Sensei treats her condescendingly at best, not recognizing her achievements, but Anna tries to fight it and does not give up.

The image turned out to be very bright, Imogen once again did not disappoint at all, and I must note that in the fights in which she participated, from a purely sporting point of view, she looked quite authentic and impressive. I note that Jesse Eisenberg did not strain at all with this case, but, however, it is clear that in the film it is not at all about his karate skills.

I like this movie. On the one hand, it seems nothing special and is completely optional for viewing. On the other hand, an unusual production, sharp plot twists, good acting – in the end, I did not regret at all that I saw this picture. As some breakdown of the stereotype – quite suitable!


The Art of Self-Defense movie review

Director: Riley Stearns Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, David Zellner, Phillip Andre Botelho, Jason Burkey, Mike Brooks, Dave Johnson

Black humor thriller, USA, 2019, 100 min.

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