Going on the Offensive With The Art of Self-Defense
Jesse Eisenberg navigates the hierarchy of martial arts
Most filmmakers use their Twitter feeds to publicize their work, and for his new movie, The Art of Self-Defense, writer/director Riley Stearns has been undertaking the necessary self-promotion. However, he's only posted two photos of himself: one on the podium at the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation's 2018 championships; the other as he stands, a nervous smile on his face, next to MMA legend Georges St-Pierre.
After six years as a self-described "jiujitsu guy," the Texan filmmaker merges his professional and personal passions in his new psychodrama. But when he started writing the script about three years ago, he wasn't interested in making another Karate Kid. Stearns said, "I was really interested in doing a martial arts movie, but maybe exploring ideas that maybe you wouldn't think to explore in a martial arts movie."
A native of Pflugerville (best known to non-Texans as the place where The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was shot), Stearns' 2014 feature debut, Faults, focused on a cult deprogrammer who finds himself out of his depth; and while there's something undeniably cultish about the dojo in The Art of Self-Defense, the real connecting tissue between the two films is their leading men, each on a voyage of self-discovery. However, they find that they are not the good men they hoped to be. Stearns said, "It's the characters embracing a little bit of the darkness inside of them."
His flawed protagonist here is Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a nebbish nobody who gets assaulted by a biker gang and decides to take martial arts lessons to learn to protect himself. But the nameless Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and his loyal lieutenant Anna (Imogen Poots) have different plans for him. Casey is left to ponder many of the same questions that Stearns asked about himself – and the nature of modern masculinity – when he was out on the practice mat. "Did I feel enough like a man in front of everyone else? Does that guy think about masculinity? Does he think that other men are intimidating?"
Yet Casey is not left to ponder this in a structureless environment, as Sensei's dojo has systems and hierarchies: some clear, some hidden, all unlocked by determination and devotion to the rules – another aspect shared with cults. "In Faults," Stearns said, "we talked about levels. Each time you get to a level, there's a new level to achieve. And in martial arts – and not just in the movie, in martial arts in general – there is that belt system of, 'Oh, this person has been around longer and knows more than me and has this belt.' So there is a hierarchy.
"If you're rolling and sparring in jiujitsu [and] you bump into the upper belts; if you're a lower belt then you move aside for them. And even if it's not a cultlike thing, it's still has that feeling of, 'Oh, they're better than me, I have to move aside for them.' And in the movie, it's just taken to the nth degree."
So The Art of Self-Defense is not an attack on martial arts (especially not on jiujitsu, even though Stearns swapped it out in the script for the more cinematically striking form of karate). Instead, the filmmaker seems gleeful to talk about what has become an abiding passion. When he first started watching combat sports on TV, he said, "I would change the channel because I was a little embarrassed. ... I wasn't supposed to be watching people punch each other in the face. That's not cultured. But I think, over time, everyone has embraced it as more of a sport, and less something that jocks and meatheads do."
Moreover, what appealed to him about the emphasis on grappling in jiujitsu was its potential as the perfect dynamic for an underdog story. "When the fight goes to the ground, I really liked the idea that the smaller guy could use leverage and technique to beat the bigger guy."
The Art of Self-Defense
NARRATIVE FEATURE COMPETITIONSunday, March 10, 2:45pm, Paramount
Tuesday, March 12, 11am, Atom Theater at ACC
Friday, March 15, 7:45pm, Stateside