Jesse Eisenberg has a very recognizable screen presence: fast-talking, fidgety and often highly determined. His characters can run the spectrum of self-confidence and influence, but, generally speaking, they function under a combination of anxiety and drive. In Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense, his character Casey is entirely the opposite. An accountant at a brown-panelled, ill-defined office, he takes his lunches in diners alone, listens awkwardly as the guys from work banter in the lunch room and finds his only solace in his pampered daschund. When he’s mugged by masked assailants one night, Casey finds his way to a local karate dojo run by a man known only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Sensei is a regimented alpha male with extremely rigorous ideas of what is and isn’t manly. (He is, in many ways, what I imagine Jordan Peterson thinks he looks and sounds like in his own mind.) Casey becomes enamored with the ideas vehicled by Sensei, soon turning his entire life over to his teachings — but, of course, there’s more than meets the eye to his new ruler.
The Art of Self-Defense is Stearns’ second feature after Faults, which also played Fantasia, back in 2014. Faults was about a cult specialist (Leland Orser) who offers to “deprogram” a young woman (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) by sequestering her in a hotel room. Faults was a film obsessed with the idea of brainwashing and manipulation between people – a theme that also runs through his second film.
“When I read The Art of Self-Defense, I read it through the lens of somebody who is very interested in cults,” says Eisenberg. “The movie clearly shows a kind of cult dynamic at the karate class, and my character is a classic example of someone who would join a cult: someone who is eager to be part of a group, has trouble making friends, has a lot of anxiety and is worried — an authoritarian figure is the perfect influence for him. But then, as we were shooting the movie, the #MeToo movement happened, stories about Harvey Weinstein came out, and I started to see the movie less about the idea of the cult and more of a commentary about masculinity, a commentary on brute strength and a commentary on the way men treat women and the way men treat each other. For me, the movie turned from a commentary on cult behaviour to a commentary about male behaviour.”
In a sense, Stearns splits the difference between toxic masculinity and a cultish mindset by essentially arguing that masculinity is a cult in itself. It’s not hard to see how Casey can get swept up in Sensei’s confidence — even the viewer gets swept up in the rhythm of his particular brand of nonsense.
“It proves that confidence and stupidity is more influential than being smart and timid. We’re very willing to listen to someone who sounds like they know what they’re talking about and assures us that we’re safe under their watch.”
Casey barely speaks at all in the film. Even his move into alpha zones isn’t a particularly verbose one, which is also a far cry from the kinds of roles we generally associate with Eisenberg.
“He’s so timid, he’s so panicked,” he says. “I think of the character as a 10-year-old boy: pure and innocent, but at the same time worried about everything. That’s why it’s such a brilliant satire on masculinity. On one hand, you have the character I play who’s the extreme kind of beta male, but on the other hand, you have this extreme kind of alpha male. They’re absurd characterizations of both!”
The Art of Self-Defense is deliberately vague about when and where it’s set — there are no cellphones, very generic fashion, VHS tapes abound and the streets of the town (actually Louisville, Kentucky) are almost always deserted. It’s a little bit ’90s, but ultimately much more vague than that.
“It was an aesthetic choice for Riley,” says Eisenberg. “He says he hates looking at cellphones in movies — and I do, too! They’re just not attractive to look at. And it’s not interesting to look at someone look at them either! (…) I think it works well for this movie. It’s an ironic look at men, so the fact that it takes place in this weird time makes them look more absurd, because they’re using such old equipment. Everything is supposed to be stylized towards the idea of isolating these characters. Sensei doesn’t even have a name. The characters are all just ‘cashier,’ ‘man at counter’… because none of them really exist outside of this world.”
Jesse Eisenberg and I are about the same age, which means that there was an almost 100 per cent chance that he, like all boys our age, did some martial arts as a kid. The early ’90s saw a true explosion in the popularity of martial arts and, as I had predicted, Eisenberg did not escape that explosion.
“I did a few weeks of karate when I was younger and I hated it,” he says. “I hated it for all the same reasons that the movie presents. It seemed to me like just a group of jocks doing this thing. I liked it more preparing for this movie because it’s more disciplined, and you don’t have to be as strong. It’s about learning the discipline of it. I was surrounded by some of the best martial artists in the world: Mindy Kelly and Steve Terada worked on this movie, and they started competing when they were six years old. It was inspiring for all of us.” ■
The Art of Self-Defense screens as part of Fantasia in the Hall Theatre (1455 de Maisonneuve W.) on Thursday, July 11, 9:30 p.m. and opens in theatres on Friday, July 19. Watch an early scene from the film here, and watch the trailer below: