I take a look at this strange film about modern masculinity. No, not Fight Club.
Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) is an accountant who lives a solitary life. One evening he is brutally attacked by a motorcycle gang, hospitalizing him. When he recovers, he starts to get paranoid about his safety. He considers buying a gun, but instead attends a free karate class taught by “Sensei” (Alessandro Nivola). Casey meets Anna (Imogen Poots), a brown belt who teaches the children’s classes, and becomes friends with Henry (David Zellner), the Blue Belt. Casey dedicates himself fully to the class and soon is advanced to yellow belt. Sensei invites Casey to the night classes, which are more extreme, and tries to get Casey to change his life in order to become an alpha male. Unfortunately, while it impresses his douchier co-workers, Casey gets fired for throat-punching his boss… as you would expect.
At the night class, Henry sneaks in and Sensei breaks his arm. Anna brutally spars with a new black belt and beats him unconscious. She reveals that Sensei won’t make a woman a black belt. Sensei hires Casey as the dojo’s accountant and helps Casey track down and beat up a man who Sensei claims was part of the gang that injured Casey. It’s revealed that the man was innocent and Sensei records Casey attacking him as blackmail. Casey returns home to find that someone has killed his dog using a technique from the dojo. He accuses Sensei, who denies it.
Sensei takes a number of students out to ride motorcycles and orders them to attack people. Anna and Casey are partnered and attack an undercover police officer, who shoots Anna. Casey then kills the officer. Casey takes Anna home and finds a new dog, a German Shepherd, at his house. Casey heads back to the Dojo and finds tapes confirming that Sensei’s students were the gang that attacked Casey. Sensei thought that the threat of a roving gang would increase enrollment in self-defense. Casey challenges Sensei to a death match and Sensei agrees, however, Casey just shoots him in the head when he bows. Casey tells everyone that he used a mystical karate technique that mimics a gunshot using his finger and takes over the Dojo, making Anna a black-belt and taking over the children’s class himself.
I’m surprised that I never saw this movie when it first came out because I do tend to like Jesse Eisenberg’s movies, particularly dark comedies like this one. I think when he’s got a good script he can bring a good performance, but he’s best when he’s a quirky little oddball. In this film, he’s the outsider from the beginning, constantly being the butt of jokes among his co-workers and really only being invited to stuff by his very odd boss. Very early on, we see him brutally beaten, now afraid to even do the modest amount of living that he was doing before. It works great because Eisenberg manages to come off as constantly terrified while also attempting to suppress his emotions. He’s unable to show his fear as much as he wants, because that’s not what guys do, and that’s what this film is about: Masculinity.
Casey is a man who is manipulated by fear into accepting a cult-like mentality that is framed about attempting to recapture the supposed lost masculinity of the modern man. It’s designed to ensure that women are inferior, with Anna never being allowed to be a black belt even though she is clearly the best student. It’s also designed to reframe everything into a single structure where the “highest” position is a person who has achieved an arbitrary skill, Karate mastery, in order to justify the hierarchy. Things that are considered “weak,” like listening to music that isn’t heavy metal, being friends with other passive men, and even owning a small dog, are not acceptable. Later, we find out that Sensei uses traditional cult tactics to force loyalty in his members as well as to inspire fear in order to gain more students, who will in turn cause more fear. It’s hard not to see the thematic similarities to Fight Club, even though this is a very different take. At the end of the film, Casey destroys everything by recognizing the truths: Sensei is crazy and Karate is not particularly useful in a world where people own guns. It’s a metaphor for how you escape a cult mentality.
Overall, I liked this movie. I recommend giving it a try if you haven’t.
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