Dark comedies are inherently tough to pull off. Finding that balance between humor and darkness is a fine line that’s often overstepped or shied away from. Too much of one without the other creates a tonal imbalance and the movie slides towards absurdity in one direction or the other. The audience should be able to experience both laughter and fear, sharing a symbiotic relationship, and when executed at a high level the films that succeed often have indelible legacies…or at the very least, cult followings. The Art of Self-Defense is one of those films that hit the mark.
Writer/Director Riley Stearns’ sophomore feature film was much darker than I had anticipated. Being unfamiliar with his work, I can only base my preconceived notions on trailers but the depth of the content was surprising. The ads just barely scrape the surface of this film and that’s a good thing. Surprises in cinema are essential. The story was a lot more complex than it appeared from the outside-looking-in and even though many of the individual plot points were kinda predictable along the way, the overall direction of the story keeps you guessing. Stearns’ dialogue was wonderfully bizarre and set against equally strange backdrops. Perhaps most importantly, it was funny but definitely had a clearly defined hard edge as it tackled themes of toxic masculinity and gun violence. Although the scope of the personal narratives here was fairly narrow, the conceptual approach to the characters and the world were impressively broad. Despite being set in what appears to be the mid-1990s, the collective voice of the film is firmly in tune with our present. From top to bottom, this was an incredibly well-rounded project from Stearns and I look forward to seeing what he does next.
Dark comedies don’t go far without a strong antagonist and Alessandro Nivola provided a good one here as Sensei, the self-aggrandizing karate instructor. I’ll likely always remember him as Pollux Troy in Face-Off but his career has been filled with a myriad of interesting roles. The character here was definitely modeled after the predatory type of martial arts instructors that were common at the time and Nivola leaned into that role with joyful malice. The parameters of the character exceeded the walls of the dojo and his relationship with the protagonist cultivated unique emotional energy throughout the film.
This role was right in Jesse Eisenberg’s wheelhouse. He seems to be most at home with quiet, brooding characters and Casey Davies fits the bill to a tee. He’s very robotic or at least the portrayal was…more along the lines of a developmental social disorder like Asperger’s. He too leaned heavily into the character and you can see he had a good deal of fun with the role thanks to some incredibly awkward bits of dialogue and situational humor.
Alongside Eisenberg, Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later, Fright Night) delivered a standout performance as Anna, Sensei’s oldest student who is battling overt sexism and a litany of other issues which leave her basically indentured. The two share strong working chemistry and play into one another’s strengths with ease. This was a very physical role that required some intense scenes and she delivered. At first, it wasn’t clear exactly how that angle was going to play out but as the story progressed she settled into the character nicely. She and Eisenberg have another film due out in 2019 called Vivarium that’s let to get a release date if you’re looking to see more of them.
There was a very distinct visual footprint, thanks in large part to Production Designer Charlotte Royer and Cinematographer Michael Ragen. During the day, the majority of the wardrobe and set choices are beige and bland. Even the color balance of the footage itself appears to be a bit whitewashed. However, at night, the film really comes alive and uses a variety of lighting techniques to paint a far more vivid picture. This was surely no accident as the narrative addresses individual awakening through darker themes.
Personally, I enjoyed it and was thinking about it long after leaving the theater but this was another one of those movies that I can see both ways. Had someone told me they didn’t like it at all, I could understand that and vice versa. It’s certainly a subjective film that reflects the individual watching it but that’s kind of the point. It wasn’t made for everyone. Regardless of your personal take, or whether this winds up as one of the year’s best, this was a promising effort from a talented young filmmaker.
Recommendation: If you enjoy dark comedies, this was one of the darkest in recent memory. See it for the whole of what it represents, rather than for any individual element.