“I didn’t play by the rules. There are no rules.”
This is the refrain that bookends Jesse Eisenberg’s newest film, The Art of Self Defense, and what a gruesome revelation it is to realize, through Casey’s perspective, the twisted rules we fashion to protect that self. We’re dropped right into the life of Casey Davies, a 35 year old accountant struggling to learn French and take care of his dachshund, his only friend in life. But every facet of Casey’s life is a diorama of modern masculinity on exhibition. And as excess amounts of testosterone is prone to do, the film’s mood swings tear at its subjects with equal parts panic and hilarity.
Casey’s awkwardness is deemed a deficiency, possibly even a cause of the trauma he endures, and his quest to create an indestructible self helps us see the danger in relying on the wrong interpretations of strength to get us through life. Turns out, like many of the public cases of misogyny that led to the #MeToo movement makes painfully clear – masculinity is a delicate element, able to go nuclear at the strike of an atom.
Casey, however, arrives wearing none of the armor that heterosexual masculine culture offers. Never invited into The Guy Circle at the office, resigned to photocopying literal breast rankings from a magazine made explicitly for men (its title is simply The Mars Symbol, filled with gun specs and an essay about a wolf being man’s perfect pet), Casey is a white male increasingly out of step with what a man ought to be – or what a man ought to appear to be.
From the opening scene of a French couple dissecting Casey from across a diner while assuming he doesn’t understand their language, to his near fatal assault at night walking back home with food for his friend, he is challenged by forces that never introduce themselves. Does masculinity ever introduce itself? How did we learn what it means specifically to be men in the world? Like Casey inspired by the cop drama on his television, the officer uttering that double-edged phrase “I didn’t play by the rules” before he executes a man who looks helpless, we learn through imitation. And if life does imitate art, then this film in many ways is an indictment of the violent masculinity film itself has championed for decades.
That brutal, unwarranted, and indefensible act of violence changes Casey’s life forever. Beaten within an inch of his life by four motorcyclists all dressed in black, he becomes bodily aware of what we knew from the beginning – he is powerless. In response to that powerlessness, Casey walks randomly into a storefront with the blinds closed, only the words KARATE in bold red above it. He discovers a sensei (played by Alessandro Nivola, whom I didn’t realize I missed since Junebug) inviting him into a temple of discipline. This place offers him color-coded rankings that mean progress, achievement, and ability.
As a late 80s baby raised on The Karate Kid, I am keenly aware of how martial arts shaped my ideas about masculinity (my father said he used to spar with buddies in the neighborhood, every kid then being a student of Bruce Lee). Sensei, which is the only way he’s addressed until a shocking name reveal later on, sees something of himself in Casey. He adorns him with a yellow belt, a totem for his identity (and not coincidentally a color attributed to cowards). We the viewer can spot a master manipulator at work. Especially when introduced to Anna, the children’s karate class instructor played to perfection by Imogen Poots, the sole female presence on screen who is more zealous than any male presence we’re shown.
When Anna is passed over for an upgrade to black belt, the full moon comes out over the whole film; everyone starts showing their teeth. To spoil all the shocking ruthlessness revealed in every character would be a complete disservice, but one particular act of inhumanity stands out. Anna, who meets Casey at Night Class, crushes the man who was promoted to black belt in place of her with the ferocity of an offended lion. Even after he surrenders she does not relent. Sensei does not step in for any other reason until he finally feels like it. This kind of violence isn’t only encouraged, it is also incredibly helpful to the ecosystem of male power dominance.
Later we learn part of what shaped Anna at that dojo and it’s not pretty, even less surprising. We also learn along the way The Grandmaster, a black man who started this dojo, pictured on the wall sporting a custom belt with every color of the Rainbow Rankings, was shot in the face in cold blood – “mistook for a bird” we are told. I’m painting this film as morose, but abject shock or laughter are the only proper chasers for the fumbles toward Self-Defense. Possibly paying homage to my beloved Community, we get lines like “We will teach you to punch with your feet, to kick with your fists,” and like all good senseis who wax philosophical, Casey is asked this scathing question, “If a bear’s forest catches on fire is he not still a bear?”
You’re either in on the joke or you are the joke is a guiding theme and third-rail for The Art of Self-Defense, and we are in turns empowered and unnerved by that fact. Sometimes you can be both. Casey, in using all the wrong methods to overcome his fear, becomes someone we’re afraid of. Sensei’s vicious lesson on leverage doubles back on him, and Anna’s empowerment is shadowed by a blindness to certain acts of violence. We unearth the hidden power dynamics at play within the dojo with disgusting, dramatic clarity. As much as the film is an indictment on the strange and terrible shapes that toxic masculinity takes, it’s also a question about whether a society reliant upon violence at nearly every level can sustain itself.
It’s possible this movie resonated with me because I’m a man who’s been randomly assaulted outside my wife’s childhood home. I understood Casey’s primal desire to buy a gun soon after trauma, but am grateful to say I have not and never will. Regardless of that I think, this movie is essential viewing (and very close to a masterwork by Jesse Eisenberg), as we reckon with patriarchal systems and gender discrimination which stifles the world in ways we have barely begun to imagine. If Casey, in the end, has to “become the thing he fears”, does he transform into something greater or lesser than what he originally was? I’m not completely sure, but I definitely won’t talk down to a yellow belt ever again.
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