The Art of Self-Defense (2019 film)

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The Art of Self-Defense
The Art of Self-Defense.jpeg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRiley Stearns
Produced by
  • Andrew Kortschak
  • Walter Kortschak
  • Cody Ryder
  • Stephane Whonsetler
Written byRiley Stearns
Music byHeather McIntosh
CinematographyMichael Ragen
Edited bySarah Beth Shapiro
End Cue
Distributed byBleecker Street
Release date
  • March 10, 2019 (2019-03-10) (SXSW)
  • July 12, 2019 (2019-07-12) (United States)
Running time
104 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Box office$2.4 million[2]

The Art of Self-Defense is a 2019 black comedy martial arts film written and directed by Riley Stearns and starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola and Imogen Poots. It had its world premiere at South by Southwest on March 10, 2019 and was released in the United States on July 12, 2019 by Bleecker Street.


Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) is a timid and socially awkward accountant. One night on his way home, a masked gang on motorcycles assaults him; the gang has been attacking people throughout the city. While recuperating, Casey decides to purchase a hand gun for protection. After submitting his background check paperwork, he finds a karate dōjō led by the charismatic and enigmatic "Sensei" (Alessandro Nivola). After a trial class Casey decides to take more classes instead of buying the gun.

At the dōjō Casey meets Anna (Imogen Poots), a brown belt and the only female student of the dōjō, and Henry, a friendly blue belt student. Henry explains that Sensei teaches a special night class for select students. Casey's commitment to training impresses Sensei, who promotes him to a yellow belt. At the ceremony, Sensei talks about the greatness of the dōjō's now-dead grandmaster, who killed 3 other grandmasters via a secret technique of punching his index finger through their skulls.

Sensei invites Casey, but not the eager Henry, to the dōjō's more brutal night classes. Henry attends uninvited, and Sensei breaks his elbow at the joint and expels him from the dōjō as punishment. In the night classes Sensei encourages Casey to be more "masculine." Casey returns to his job much more aggressive, and he is fired after his alpha male attitude leads him to punch his boss.

Sensei hires Casey as the dōjō's accountant. Sensei tells Casey that one of the masked motorcycle gang members who attacked him is at a bar, and he takes Casey to attack the drunken man. Casey gravely injures him and is surprised to find Sensei videotaping the confrontation. Casey suspects that his victim was innocent. Casey returns home to find his dog has been killed, and he suspects that Sensei was behind it, leading him to confront Sensei the next day. However, when Casey threatens to leave the dōjō, Sensei admits that the man Casey injured was innocent and threatens to release the tapes of the assault, prompting Casey to attack and be swiftly defeated by Sensei.

During the next night session, Sensei handpicks Casey and several other students to go out on motorcycles that look familiar to Casey. Sensei orders them to attack people who are by themselves. Anna volunteers to accompany the uncertain Casey, whispering that they have to follow Sensei's orders or he will kill them. As partners, Anna and Casey target a man who turns out to be an undercover police officer and who shoots Anna in the leg. Casey kills the cop as Sensei looks on in approval. After this, Sensei informs Casey that he will receive a red stripe on his belt to signify that he killed a man, a mark that Casey previously thought was for instructors after seeing a red stripe on Anna's belt. Casey then drives Anna home, and she reveals that she received her red stripe when she killed a black belt student in self-defense when he tried to assault her in the changing room. However, Sensei blamed the attack on Anna, claiming she tempted a higher ranked student and thus forced her to change in the old equipment room from then on. Anna then urges Casey to leave the dōjō.

Casey, now very suspicious of Sensei, sneaks into the dōjō to investigate further. In the restricted area he finds a working crematorium and video tapes of the students as motorcyclists attacking civilians. Sensei apparently believes that these attacks will strengthen the victims who, like Casey, survive the attack. One of these tapes confirms that Sensei, Anna, and Thomas were the motorcycle assailants who originally assaulted Casey. The video also shows that Anna prevented Thomas from executing Casey. He discovers evidence that Sensei extorts money from the students on the tapes who later left the dōjō.

When Sensei returns in the morning, he finds that Henry has hanged himself in the middle of the dōjō. Unmoved, he incinerates the body using the crematorium. Casey appears and challenges him to a fight to the death. As Sensei bows to initiate the fight, Casey pulls a gun from his gi and shoots Sensei in the head, killing him.

When the other night class students arrive, Casey tells them he killed Sensei in a duel by punching his index finger through Sensei's skull-- the technique Sensei had earlier explained only the grandmaster knew (this also implies that the grandmaster actually shot his rivals). Saying that he took but did not earn Sensei's black belt, Casey gives it to Anna, promoting her to a full black belt. Anna becomes the new sensei, teaching compassionate combat rather than ruthless aggression, and Casey begins teaching the children's classes.


Leland Orser and Josh Fadem cameo as a detective and serial killer, respectively, in a film within a film watched by Casey. Caroline Amiguet voices a French language instructor.


In May 2016, it was announced Mary Elizabeth Winstead had joined the cast of the film, with her husband Riley Stearns directing from a screenplay he wrote.[3] In 2017 Winstead announced her separation from Stearns.[4] In September 2017, it was announced Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots and Alessandro Nivola joined the cast of the film, with Andrew Kortschak, Cody Ryder, Stephanie Whonsetler and Walter Kortschak serving as producers on the film, while Bleecker Street distributed the film.[5][6]

Principal photography began on September 11, 2017, in Kentucky.[7]


The film had its world premiere at South by Southwest on March 10, 2019.[8] It was released in select theaters on July 12, 2019.[9] The film was released nationwide on July 19, 2019.

Home media[edit]

The film was released on Blu-ray and DVD in the United States on October 15, 2019.


On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 84% based on 160 reviews, with an average rating of 7.26/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The Art of Self-Defense grapples compellingly with modern American masculinity and serves as an outstanding calling card for writer-director Riley Stearns."[10] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 65 out of 100, based on 32 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews."[11]

Peter Debruge of Variety wrote, "This singular black comedy balances off-kilter humor with an unexpectedly thriller-esque undercurrent, to the extent that audiences will find it tough to anticipate either the jokes or the dark, Fight Club-like turn things eventually take — all to strikingly original effect."[12]


  1. ^ "The Art of Self-Defense". South by Southwest. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  2. ^ "The Art of Self-Defense". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 4, 2019.
  3. ^ Jagernauth, Kevin (May 26, 2016). "'Faults' Duo Riley Sterns & Mary Elizabeth Winstead Reteam For 'The Art Of Self Defence'". The Playlist. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  4. ^ Feldman, Kate (May 14, 2017). "Mary Elizabeth Winstead, husband Riley Stearns split". New York Daily News. Retrieved October 27, 2017.
  5. ^ McNary, Dave (11 September 2017). "Jesse Eisenberg's 'Art of Self-Defense' Lands at Bleecker Street". Retrieved 12 September 2017.
  6. ^ Gregg Kilday (2017-09-11). "Jesse Eisenberg's 'The Art of Self-Defense' Picked Up by Bleecker Street". Retrieved 12 September 2017.
  7. ^ "Bleecker Street to Distribute 'The Art of Self Defense' with Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg". The Slanted. 20 September 2017. Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  8. ^ Kilday, Gregg (January 16, 2019). "SXSW: Olivia Wilde, Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey to Premiere New Work". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved January 16, 2019.
  9. ^ Stearns, Riley (March 29, 2019). "Good news! THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE will now be in theaters on July 12th because that day is *definitely* better than June 21st!". Retrieved April 1, 2019.
  10. ^ "The Art of Self-Defense". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved July 19, 2019.
  11. ^ "The Art of Self-Defense reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved January 22, 2020.
  12. ^ Debruge, Peter (11 March 2019). "SXSW Film Review: 'The Art of Self-Defense'". Variety.

External links[edit]