In “The Art of Self-Defense,” Jesse Eisenberg is Casey, a hunched-over bundle of tics and neuroses. He has good reason to be. On his way home from the market with a sack of dog food, he is viciously attacked by a gang of masked motorcyclists. He is beaten into a coma and wakes up in a hospital.
He is so frightened of leaving his apartment that he stops going to work. He thinks about buying a pistol, but the shop owner, like everyone Casey meets, turns his terrors into droll mockery. “I just want a gun that fits in my hand,” Casey says. “That’s why they call it a handgun,” the shop owner replies.
One day, Casey is walking past a seedy karate dojo that looks as if it had been plunked down on an otherwise deserted city street. He falls under the spell of its charismatic yet furtive Sensei (Alessandro Nivaro). He joins an odd collection of male rejects whose masculinity is so trampled down that there is nowhere to go but up. The fear-wracked Casey tells Sensei, “I want to become what intimidates me.”
Written and directed by Riley Stearns, “The Art of Self-Defense” strides into the black-comedy, test-of-manhood territory staked out by David Fincher’s “Fight Club” and, more recently, the baroque deadpan dread of Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” But Stearns falls a bit short on the ideas he presents and you feel the movie, which is disturbing and has flashes of brilliance, could be sharper.
Stearns elicits a convincingly queasy performance from Eisenberg, who conveys both fear and the inner rage trying to erupt. Eisenberg wins you over by building his character through detail. Casey orders a yellow leather belt (yellow is the color of cowardice), which matches his karate rank, to wear to work and pump up his courage in “the real world.”
The movie is said to be about toxic masculinity in the #MeToo age, but Stearns and Eisenberg don’t so much exploit it as satirize it and the cult of pathological male supremacy embodied by Sensei. Nivaro, whose excellent supporting performance suggests a tough snake-charming Pygmalion, starts to remake Casey in his own image, even as Casey reveals a romantic attraction to Anna (Imogen Poots), the children’s karate instructor and Sensei’s sexual conquest.
Casey lives in a nondescript suburb of a nameless, nearly barren city. The movie seems frozen in an indistinct time. Casey has a VCR and VHS tapes and he works with boxy, old-school computers. The supermarket Casey frequents sells goods with generic branding (Dog Food, Toothpaste, etc.), a conceit borrowed from Alex Cox’s disorientation classic, “Repo Man.”
Instead of pushing this material to the brink of grueling horror as Fincher, Lanthimos and Cox would, Stearns pulls back and softens the edges. He flexes his theme of hyperbolic masculinity and then shortchanges it with a cheap shock at the climax. But Stearns reserves his best surprise for the fadeout as Casey realizes masculinity doesn’t have to be toxic.