It’s apparent from the get-go that The Art of Self-Defense isn’t trying to put a spotlight on the real world as we see it. Writer-director Riley Stearns, for his second feature, channels the likes of Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite) and Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York) in terms of tone, but he’s really telling a story one would find in the martial arts films of old. The twist, however, is that it’s set in contemporary, non-glamorous America (the film was shot in Kentucky).
The story follows Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a meek accountant who, after a brutal mugging by a motorcycle gang, takes up karate classes with the unnamed local Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). The classes are intense not so much because of their content, but because of the instructor who seems picked right out of a Bruce Lee film. Casey lets it go to his head, wearing his small ascension to yellow belt proudly, and slowly falling under his Sensei’s spell thanks to the minor amount of power and gratification the classes give him.