The current cultural discourse has, of late, become filled with stories of aimless, lonely young men who, feeling they're being ignored and left behind, find direction and a kind of community through toxic and bizarre means. It’s part of what has fed the growth of hypermasculine extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer.
For Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), the weedy accountant shuffling through his beige existence in writer/director Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense, that feeling leads him to a karate class in a faceless part of his nameless city. Casey's awkward social interactions and a violent mugging at the hands of a motorcycle gang have left him in a constant state of fear, but when he steps into the dojo, he is intoxicated by the eloquent yet stern Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who describes martial arts as a pathway to inner and outer strength. Casey's an instant convert.
Eventually, Sensei becomes a stand-in for the Gavin McInneses and Richard Spencers of the world, who preach a nauseating gospel of the ways white men are allegedly being left behind.
Where The Art of Self-Defense goes from this point—and how its note-perfect cast handles its premise—is what gives the movie its strength. At first, Stearns leans hard into the dark comedy, with stilted, mannered dialogue and quirky scenes that come across like a hyper-violent remake of a Hal Hartley film, or maybe Jim Jarmusch's Fight Club. But soon, Sensei’s sinister intentions become clear, and the emotional and psychological impact he has on the people in his orbit—especially Anna (Imogen Poots), the steely young woman who teaches the kids’ class—becomes harder for Casey to swallow.
Eisenberg makes that journey feel more realistic than this film perhaps deserves. He gives Casey stiff body language, with one hand curled at his side, as if ready to grab for the emergency exit when things become too scary. He never entirely loosens up throughout, instead revealing, in subtle changes in facial expressions and vocal pitch, the power and joy he gains through Sensei’s teaching. Nivola, by contrast, stays steady throughout, with nary a shift in tone or expression—revealing the thin line between the allure and danger of his poisonous thoughts and actions.
Eventually, Sensei becomes a stand-in for the Gavin McInneses and Richard Spencers of the world, who preach a nauseating gospel of the ways white men are allegedly being left behind, along with cruel, wrong-headed plans to take their supposed power back. Casey is the poor soul that falls for it—but, as Stearns film reminds us, demagogues never worry about the broken bodies and spirits they leave in their wake.