July 10, 2019

SCREEN | Jesse Eisenberg Learns 'The Art of Self-Defense' x Rupture

"Never hold back. Not ever."
Jesse Eisenberg Imogen Poots Riley Stearns | The Art of Self-Defense | VIFF Rupture 2019

Indie filmmaker Riley Stearns' bizarrely offbeat, pitch-black comedy, starring Jesse Eisenberg as a meek accountant looking to unlock his inner toxic masculine confidence and defend himself, is such an incisive dark satire. The Art of Self-Defense really commits to its wildly twisted deadpan comic premise set mostly in a 1990s karate dojo.

Character actor Alessandro Nivola continues his string of interesting roles as the reserved yet hateful strip mall karate sensei who wildly abuses the small amount of power he wields. Imogen Poots serves as a worthy counterpoint to Eisenberg's nebbish energy as the most badass of sensei's students who's constantly held back (not without protest) by her gender. Her simmering anger perfectly balances the bloated testosterone (also filled with latent homoeroticism) of the other worshipful male students (think Fight Club meets The Karate Kid).

Stearns and Eisenberg create a small but surreal world with such unnerving, exacting humour that's played completely straight (à la Yorgos Lanthimos). This subtle sense of heightened violence and despair make it so disturbing yet uncomfortably hysterical. Nivola steals the film with this oddly polite sense of deranged, chauvinistic cruelty.

Filled with sinister yet disarming gags, the absurdist humour commits to its bleak, male-dominated worldview of necessary violence to make some fairly obvious point about gender. It shows the culmination of ultimate masculinity as the most desirable prize. Stearns and company use dark satire to show what it means to be a man.

The Art of Self-Defense screened as part of the 2019 Rupture film festival and the Vancouver International Film Centre's year-round Altered States (ALT) programming at Vancity Theatre. It opens in Vancouver on July 19th.


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