A bold and dark vision from Texas filmmaker Riley Stearns
I recently listened to an absolutely engrossing episode of This American Life entitled Petty Tyrant. It’s the true story of a power-grabbing, vindictive, manipulative man who rules his sphere of influence with an iron fist. It’s the story of a small man who fancies himself big. It’s the story of a … school district maintenance chief?! Steve Raucci worked his way up from the bottom of the district, wresting power at every turn, firing underlings and keeping lists of grievances, until he ultimately gets removed from his throne for terroristic threats. There’s another, higher profile tyrant sitting in the White House as I write this who is, despite the scope of his tyranny, just as petty and manipulative as Raucci. In The Art Of Self Defense, writer/director Riley Stearns brings us a tale of petty tyranny on an even smaller scale than Raucci’s, and it’s equally as engrossing and repulsive of a story as the other aforementioned tyrants.
You’d be hard pressed to recognize the dark, tyrannical edge of the film for the first 30 minutes or so as we’re introduced to the decidedly meek Casey (Jesse Eisenberg). Stearns eases us into the hilarious tone found in his screenplay. Characters throughout the film speak in very direct and literal ways that had our audience in stitches and defies any kind of written description. The humor is almost otherworldly, and in fact, while it pulls us deeper into the film, it also assures us that The Art Of Self Defense is a somewhat fantastical film not quite set in our world and not quite set in any particular time outside of the vague present.
When Casey returns home from his nondescript accounting job one day and heads out to buy dog food for his dachshund, he’s viciously assaulted by a gang of helmeted motorcyclists. After considering buying a gun, he instead settles on karate lessons at the dojo of a man known only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola, Face/Off). Quickly falling under Sensei’s spell–Nivola is a revelation here–Casey begins the quest to reclaim his masculinity and turn his fear into power. No doubt, Casey finds himself questioning the codes and rules of the school and occasionally repulsed by Sensei’s methods. But he also relishes the fleeting feelings of power he experiences when, say, listening to heavy metal at Sensei’s instruction because it’s the most aggressive and masculine music and causing families in other cars to roll up their windows, intimidated.
After the initial set up, things get dark fairly quickly. Sensei is a deeply disturbed man who manifests his tyranny in shockingly violent ways. Multiple people (and animals) are killed or maimed in The Art Of Self Defense, and the violence is somewhat shocking. It also barely seems to register in any of our characters’ consciences. It’s as though everyone in the film is psychotic, and Sensei is just the MOST psychotic. This is part of what gives the film such a singular tone and brand of comedy. It won’t be long before Casey finds himself at odds with Sensei, and the whole trajectory of the film is as engrossing as it is entertaining.
Stearns builds such a specific world here with his script and his actors that one almost takes away a bit of a Wes Anderson vibe without all the fanciful frills. There’s a beating heart and real-world pains and pleasures being explored even as our characters seem to live and move in a world not quite our own. The affectation of the dialog is brilliant and otherworldly, the events of the film appear to take place in somewhat of a vacuum where there’s almost no one else in the world outside of our main characters, and it’s all done with intention and purpose. Casey and the other students aren’t condemned for falling under the influence of a tyrant, per se. One can see part of the appeal of Sensei. But his toxicity becomes clear to all, his fragility runs deep, and the rotten kingdom over which he rules must collapse to make way for a deeper kind of power. Meanwhile, throughout all of this potent societal commentary and character exploration, you’ll find yourself laughing uproariously. It’s quite something.
Stearns is a Texas filmmaker whose previous work I am unfamiliar with, but which I’d now like to track down. He’ll be a talent I now keep an eye on. The Art Of Self Defense will handily rank among the best films of SXSW 2019, and I truly hope that with its strong cast (which also includes the fantastic Imogen Poots as a long-suffering student of Sensei’s who has an arc all her own in the film) and interesting premise that it will break wide and find a large audience. Perhaps many of us out there would be interested in the story of a group of people falling under the spell of a petty tyrant, recognizing their sorry situation, and doing something about it.
And I’m Out.