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
Written byRiley Stearns
Produced by
  • Andrew Kortschak
  • Walter Kortschak
  • Cody Ryder
  • Stephane Whonsetler
CinematographyMichael Ragen
Edited bySarah Beth Shapiro
Music byHeather McIntosh
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 from buying food for his dog, he is assaulted by a masked motorcycle gang who have been attacking people throughout the city. While recuperating, Casey decides to purchase a handgun for protection. He then finds a karate dōjō led by the charismatic and enigmatic "Sensei" (Alessandro Nivola). After a trial class, Casey decides to take regular 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 group, 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. However, Anna is denied her promotion to black belt in favour of another student. At the ceremony, Sensei talks about the dōjō's now-dead grandmaster, who killed 3 other grandmasters via a secret technique of punching his index finger through their skulls.

Sensei encourages Casey to become 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 in the throat. 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. 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.

Sensei hires Casey as the dōjō's accountant. He later informs Casey that one of the gang members who attacked him is at a bar, and encourages Casey to attack the drunken man. Casey gravely injures him and is surprised to find Sensei videotaping the confrontation. Realizing that his victim was innocent, a distraught Casey returns home to find his pet Dachshund has been killed due to trauma resembling a "punch from a foot", a technique taught by Sensei. He confronts Sensei the next day and threatens to leave the dōjō, but Sensei blackmails Casey by threatening to release the tape of his assault on the drunken man. Casey attacks, but is 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, with orders 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. He shoots Anna in the leg, but Casey kills the cop to Sensei's approval. He 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-defence when he tried to assault her in the changing room. However, Sensei blamed the attack on Anna, claiming she tempted a higher-ranked student. Anna then urges Casey to leave the dōjō. Casey returns home to find an aggressive German Shepherd gifted to him by Sensei.

Now highly suspicious of Sensei, Casey 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. One of these tapes confirms that Sensei, Anna, and Thomas were the gang who originally assaulted Casey. The video also shows that Anna prevented Thomas from executing Casey. He discovers evidence on the tapes that Sensei extorts money from the students 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 students arrive, Casey tells them he killed Sensei in a duel by punching his index finger through Sensei's skull, as the late grandmaster had done (this also implies that the grandmaster actually shot his rivals). He also discovers that Thomas was responsible for killing his Dachshund and unleashes his new German Shepherd upon him in revenge. Casey then gives Sensei's belt 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 166 reviews, with an average rating of 7.30/10. 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 1, 2021.
  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]