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 American dark comedy film written and directed by Riley Stearns. It stars 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 is a mild-mannered, socially awkward accountant who does not seem to fit in with his work environment. While getting food for his pet Dachshund late one evening, Casey is confronted by a motorcycle gang, who ask if he owns a gun before brutally attacking him. While given time off from work to recuperate, he grows insecure and strongly considers purchasing a firearm for protection. But when he comes across a karate dojo, presided by "Sensei", Casey takes advantage of a free trial class, opting to take further day classes rather than purchase a firearm. Casey meets Anna, a brown belt (and the only female student of the dojo) who teaches the children's classes, and befriends Henry, a blue belt student. With time, Casey begins to perform well enough to catch the attention of his classmates and Sensei. He earns a promotion to a yellow belt, but both Anna and Henry are snubbed for their next ranks.

Sensei invites Casey to the dojo's night classes, which are more extreme and brutal than the regular classes. Henry joins the class uninvited, but when he is called upon to help demonstrate, Sensei breaks his elbow at the joint and expels him from the dojo. During a sparring session, Anna brutally beats Thomas, the newly promoted black belt student, aiming to prove her skill to Sensei despite her gender, which Sensei claims disqualifies her from earning a black belt.

Casey is encouraged by Sensei to listen to heavy metal music (rather than his preferred "adult contemporary") to become more masculine. After a two month absence from his accounting job, Casey returns as a more assertive employee. His alpha male attitude leads to him impressing his cocky co-workers and throat-punching his boss (although it is left ambiguous whether this latter act is a fantasy or not) and he gets terminated, but is then offered a temporary position by Sensei to be the dojo's accountant. Casey reveals to Sensei that he is taking the classes in response to the traumatic experience of being attacked by the motorcycle gang. Days later, Sensei calls Casey telling him that he has spotted one of the gang members at a bar, encouraging him to attack the drunken suspect. Casey gravely injures him, but is surprised to find Sensei recording the confrontation, realizing that the suspect was innocent.

A distraught Casey returns home to find his dog unconscious. He is later pronounced dead at the hospital, due to trauma that resembles a punch from a foot — a technique Casey remembered learning during his first lesson. Casey returns to the dojo and accuses Sensei of killing his dog, which he denies. During the evening's session, the entire class goes out to ride motorcycles — which look familiar to Casey — with orders to attack people who are by themselves. As partners, Anna and Casey target an undercover police officer. Anna is shot in the leg, but Casey kills the cop to Sensei's approval. Casey takes Anna home and finds a German Shepherd at his house, given to him by Sensei. Casey returns to the dojo to investigate further.

In a restricted section of the dojo, Casey finds several disturbing things: A working crematorium; Henry's corpse, hanging by his own blue belt; a hit-list; and a series of video tapes which confirm Sensei and some of his own classmates, including Anna and Thomas, as the motorcycle gang that attacked him. Casey also discovers that Anna prevented the gang from executing him during the assault. When Sensei returns in the morning, Casey challenges him to a fight to the death, as the dojo's late grandmaster is known for. Suited up, the two bow, and Casey pulls out a gun from his gi and shoots Sensei in the head, killing him.

At the evening class, Casey tells the other students that he killed Sensei in a duel by punching his pointer finger through Sensei’s skull, having previously dipped his finger into the bullet wound as proof. Casey takes charge of the class and sics his new dog on Thomas, whom he discovers was responsible for killing his dachshund after finding a bite mark on his arm. Casey then promotes Anna to a full black belt and she becomes the new sensei, teaching her beliefs of compassionate combat over ruthless aggression. Casey is then promoted to teaching the children’s classes in her stead.



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]


It had its world premiere at South by Southwest on March 10, 2019.[8] It was released on July 12, 2019.[9]


On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 84% based on 102 reviews, with an average rating of 7.24/10. 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 67 out of 100, based on 25 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[11]

Peter Debruge of Variety magazine 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 July 18, 2019.
  12. ^ Debruge, Peter (11 March 2019). "SXSW Film Review: 'The Art of Self-Defense'". Variety.

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