Beware: This article about the ending of The Art of Self-Defense spoils the ending of The Art of Self-Defense.
After a brutal and random attack by a motorcycle gang, a nebbishy accountant joins a fight club: So begins The Art of Self-Defense, the puckeringly dry new satire of toxic masculinity starring Jesse Eisenberg. Written and directed by Riley Stearns (Faults), the black comedy never wavers from its target, but it does manage to subvert audience expectations early and often—perhaps never more so than with its provocative ending.
Aside from some early clues that things are about to get a lot stranger, events at first develop much as the film’s trailer suggests. The beatdown that Eisenberg’s Casey suffers leads him to join a karate dojo run by a man who goes by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), where the shaken victim hopes to conquer his fear of other men. (“I wanna be what intimidates me,” Casey tells his new teacher.) But after the determined, desperate Casey becomes Sensei’s star student, he begins to discover how deep the rabbit hole goes. Sensei invites him to a go-for-broke (as in go-for-broken-bones) underground fight club known as “Night Class.” One of the only rules of Night Class—besides, presumably, never to talk about Night Class—is that you can’t use guns, which are described as being only for the weak. Sensei explains the reason behind this rule when he tells the class that his own teacher, the legendary Grandmaster, killed his most dangerous opponents using a move only he knew how to execute: He bored through their skulls with his index finger. Ultimately, and tragically, he was killed by a man with a gun.
Meanwhile, the movie turns even darker as Sensei begins to teach Casey his fascistic ideology, which recalls those of men’s rights activists and self-professed pick-up artists. His new music? Metal. His new language tapes? In German. His new dog, in a change Sensei forces upon him by killing his dachshund? A German shepherd. Casey also gets better acquainted with the dojo’s sole female student, Anna (Imogen Poots). Anna is Sensei’s most fearsome pupil, something she proves by nearly killing her nearest rival during Night Class. But because of her gender, Sensei promotes a male student above her. (“Her being a woman will prevent her from ever becoming a man,” Sensei sniffs.)
The movie pulls the first rug out from under the viewer when Casey learns that it was the members of Night Class who assaulted him, under Sensei’s instruction. (To add insult to injury, Sensei videotaped Casey’s pummeling and sold the footage as part of a compilation film called Faces of Fists.) Part of the Night Class’ worldview seems to be that by exercising their brutality on innocent bystanders, in the manner of a certain 1999 film’s Project Mayhem, they might awaken them. Casey, Sensei suggests, should be grateful.
The final twist comes when Casey exacts his revenge. Entering the dojo early in the morning before any other students have arrived, he challenges Sensei to a fight to the death. While Sensei salivates at the opportunity to score another kill—it’d be so easy to dispatch a measly yellow belt—Casey pulls out a gun and shoots him in the head. When the Night Class assembles, Casey informs them that he killed Sensei using Grandmaster’s long-lost karate move. Casey then unleashes his trained attack dog on the highest-ranking student, leaving the class to be taken over by the now highest-ranking Anna, and returns to his previous place as the dojo’s lowest-ranking member.* A new order has emerged, or so it would appear.
What are we to make of all of this? I’d argue that with this climactic surprise, The Art of Self-Defense reveals itself as a very male fantasy about ending the patriarchy. In interviews, Stearns has described the film’s resolution as a moral compromise in service of a greater good. Casey may have violated his own code of conduct, and he certainly violated Sensei’s by using a gun, but according to Stearns, “he’s probably sleeping pretty OK at night knowing Sensei’s not around to fuck with people from that point on.” One might also interpret the conclusion as the film’s endorsement of antifa-like tactics: Sometimes you’ve gotta punch a Nazi to keep them from believing they can continue to disparage and destroy without consequence.
And yet there’s something not quite convincing about the mostly happy ending Stearns envisions. It’s certainly thought-provoking to suggest what role men may play in dismantling patriarchal systems—a conundrum that, in the larger culture, only ever seems to yield piecemeal, sporadic answers. But it’s not particularly rousing to watch the film’s sole female character—a young, thin, blond, conventionally beautiful woman—flit through the roles of damsel-in-distress and trophy, only to finally be awarded agency through the derring-do of the male hero.
The film’s refusal to engage with the allure of toxic masculinity, by making Sensei dumber than a box of hair and the other students in the class similarly mindless, amoral foot soldiers, is what, for me, ultimately sinks it. Not that Stearns can be entirely blamed for playing it safe: Perhaps the filmmaker wanted to avoid repeating, or to even correct, the mistakes of Fight Club, which director David Fincher intended as a satire but ultimately glamorized the brawny violence and fuck-it-all attitude of the titular activity so compellingly that it ended up inspiring real-life fight clubs and adulation from incels.
But because we don’t really see the draw of Sensei and “Night Class,” we largely fail to understand why Anna and her longtime classmates are such fanatics. And that underdevelopment further waters down the resolve of the film’s conclusion. It makes sense that Stearns is foremost interested in Casey’s journey from weakling to right-hand man to abdicator of power. But we don’t learn enough about Anna to know what she’s interested in achieving. And if we’re to take it that her male classmates are as cartoonishly sexist as Sensei was, the notion that they’ll suddenly follow a woman doesn’t seem at all plausible. Stearns may have succeeded in making a version of Fight Club that even the densest of viewers couldn’t misunderstand. Unfortunately, his satire of toxic masculinity suffers from its own lack of interest in women.
Correction, July 29, 2019: An earlier version of this article misstated that a character died from a gunshot wound. He was in fact killed by a dog.