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In this interview conducted for Letterboxd News, I chat to the writer/director of the new black comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alexandro Nivola and Imogen Poots. 

Leaning heavily into ideas centered around manliness, Riley Stearns’ new film The Art of Self-Defense feels pretty loaded. Although it’s clearly presenting itself as satire, the hot-button nature of its subject matter heightens the whole affair.

Set in what appears to be sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, or a cellphone-less present—you can never be quite sure—the film stars Jesse Eisenberg as Casey, a meek office drone who is violently mugged one evening. After recovering, he begins taking karate lessons at a local dojo and falls under the influence of his charismatic sensei, a man named… Sensei. Sensei is played by Alessandro Nivola in a hilarious performance that itself justifies seeing the film, but it’s worth it for several other reasons too, not least of which is a great turn from Imogen Poots, playing a fellow student.

Destined to be polarizing, The Art of Self-Defense affects a vibe that feels influenced in equal parts by Yorgos Lanthimos, Charlie Kaufman and Wes Anderson. For Stearns, who also helmed the 2014 cult-recovery feature Faults, a black comedy described by Letterboxd members as “terrific”, “inventive” and “original”, The Art of Self-Defense continues a never-ending exploration of tone, “the most important part of filmmaking”.