By Julian Saldana
This review contains some spoilers of the film.
The first movie I saw this SXSW was no other than The Art of Self-Defense. I went in without doing much research on the film, and I’m thankful I didn’t. Going in not knowing anything let me go in with an open mind and really just sit back and enjoy almost every aspect of the film. It was different from almost any other movie I saw at SXSW; it was a well-written dark comedy written and director Riley Stearns. You could tell a lot of hard work was put into this movie and it showed through the amazing acting, well written script and beautiful set design.
Casey, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is a nerdy accountant who has no friends. Not even his own co-workers like him; anytime Casey tries to join them, he is shot down immediately and bullied by them. One evening after getting home from work he realizes he doesn’t have any dog food and must walk to store and go get some. On the way back he gets surrounded and beaten by bikers. He wakes up in the hospital after being in a coma for almost a month. Seeking revenge, Casey tries go out and buy a gun to kill the people that attacked him but is told he must wait for his background check to clear. While sulking around Casey walks into a karate and watches the class that is going on. Immediately Casey is fascinated by it, becomes obsessed with it, and drops almost everything for it.
Something is off from the start about not only the dojo, but the people who are in the class as well. As the movies goes on, we learn that not everything is as it seems from the outside. Casey’s obsession with karate and the dojo’s sensei, played by Alessandro Nivola, starts to control almost every aspect of his life. After taking a few classes he is invited to the exclusive night class taught by Sensei. When he shows up the tone is different. No one is joking around anymore. Things have gotten serious. One of his buddies from class, who wasn’t invited, shows up to the class. Sensei called his friend up to the class and starts off friendly saying he was happy to see him there. He then immediately breaks his arm and tells him that he is banned from ever entering the dojo again.
I won’t go on anymore because I don’t want to spoil this movie for anyone, but this is a must-see movie with a few plot twists no one at the premiere saw coming. One constant thing throughout the movie were the immediate tonal shifts. One minute it would be a very tense scene with heavy plot development, and then the film would switch into jokes like nothing had happened. Admittedly there were some moments where those jokes ruined the moment–they interrupted my anticipation and didn’t satisfy me. But overall the way the director made those jokes fit into some of the most stressful scenes made them that much funnier. They were a good way to break the tension that the movie was creating.
Another thing I liked about this movie was that humor was very weird and didn’t hold anything back. It would range from anything such incredibly blunt and rude behavior to Casey being so ignorant and oblivious to things in the real world. While the soundtrack was nothing groundbreaking, it was what they did with sound effects that really made the movie shine. The director put in the sound of a ticking clock at high stress moments. In the beginning of the movie it was barely noticeable, but as the movie went and Casey was going more insane from the dojo, the ticking got louder and louder. It was the small details like those that really what made this movie shine. This movie is set for a June 21 release so make sure you check it out this summer.
Featured image by Julian Saldana.