Directed By Riley Stearns
Starring – Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
The Plot – After he’s attacked on the street at night by a roving motorcycle gang, timid bookkeeper Casey (Eisenberg) joins a neighborhood karate studio to learn how to protect himself. Under the watchful eye of a charismatic instructor, Sensei (Nivola), and hardcore brown belt Anna (Poots), Casey gains a newfound sense of confidence for the first time in his life. But when he attends Sensei’s mysterious night classes, he discovers a sinister world of fraternity, brutality and hyper-masculinity, presenting a journey that places him squarely in the sights of his enigmatic new mentor.
Rated R for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and adult language
– A Stearns sense of humor. Riley Stearns is my spirit animal when it comes to his style of humor. In being every bit as blunt as he is unapologetic, this whirlwind of social commentary appropriately articulates the ridiculousness associated with toxic masculinity in a way that the characters on-screen take seriously, yet us watching in the theater translate as elementary behavior. This not only gives the film’s material a unique blend of dark humor rarely capitalized by other independent films, but also makes us the audience dig a little deeper to properly channel what kind of tonal ranges the film is taking us on at any given minute. There were moments so dark and depraved that made me want to laugh, and moments so silly that made me want to cry, and it speaks volumes to a writer and director so involved in both aspects of a film’s creative process that allows them to flow cohesively throughout the picture.
– Confronting the poison. This is the second straight week that I have reviewed a movie dealing with toxic masculinity, and the kind of consequences it has in raising a generation of glorified entitlists. Where it stands in the movie takes us through themes involving firearms, mental manipulation, crude behavior involving the polarization of females, and an overall demeanor in demographic that tells us what to listen to and how to act at all times. What’s so rewarding about seeing this through Stearns eyes is not only is it layed out in a way that feels every bit truthful as it does obtuse, but the lessons learned by the end of the film reward us in a way that promotes hope through progression. Even for a film that classifies its material as satirical, it still wraps up in a way that deconstructs the mentality and lifestyles of decades worth of movements, and gives itself a lasting image that reminds us to strive for better.
– Wonderful performances. This is a three course dinner of uniquely gifted performances by the cast that shine for completely different reasons. It begins with this being the perfect role for Eisenberg, in that it allows him to bring along his nervous ticks and quirks for the nuance of the role. His Casey has very much been a victim his whole life, so Eisenberg’s introverted shyness gives us no shortage of body language to visually narrate what we already learn in his backstory without the narration telling us anything, and it leads to his best work in years. This is my first experience with Alessandro Nivola, and I have to say that his antagonist of sorts is endearing for how much he truly believes in his disgusting and deceitful ways. Almost immediately, you notice the mental advantage he holds over Casey, in that he is able to convince him to follow through with Karate, and it outlines this sort of mental chess game that feels ten times stronger than the physical hurdles that Casey endures in competing with dojo students who command years of experience ahead of him. The real shock however, is Imogen Poots, transforming herself once more to illustrate the film’s only female character. Her character’s personality feels tougher than anyone because of the treatment she has had to endure, and through a couple of near-tearful exposition dumps, Poots displays a variety in range and on-screen presence that proves those teenage romantic comedies were thankfully a thing of the past.
– Complex compositions. The camera work in this film is beautifully constructed, illustrating a range in personality that visually takes us through the roller-coaster in tone that is the film’s juggled tonal capacity. When it reaches for humor, it usually signals out one character in particular with a still-frame long take that reaches for awkwardness in isolation. When it reaches for unnerving uncertainty, it gives us a slow pan-out shot similar to David Robert Mitchell’s style of reveal that focuses on the smaller aspects in the background coming into focus to grow into something much bigger. In my interpretation, every shot in the film has meaning in establishing a greater purpose of gimmick within the script’s many themes, outlining a level of pulse and presence for the film’s cinematography that I certainly wasn’t expecting in a film advertised mostly for the psychological abuse of Casey disposition.
– Crisp editing. In addition to the colorful blend in shot layers that stimulated with precision in variety, the editing gimmick used in the film also provides these sharp cuts that provide a particular advantage of its own for what transpires on-screen. Not only is there a treat in the form of heavy metal karate montages a couple times throughout the film that marry two sides of the coin I was truly never expecting, but the self-defense action itself is cut and pasted in a way that preserves the continuity in a sequence that was probably shot and run through three or four different times to pull from the best takes of each run. This makes Hollywood actors look and feel like authentic Karate athletes, and thanks to the consistency of timely editing preserves that level of Hollywood magic often overlooked with independent cinema.
– Color representation. Being a film that revolves around karate and the many ranks associated with color in belts that the students wear, Stearns intelligently uses this as a mentality tool that follows the characters along with them everywhere. For example, Casey spends most of the movie being a yellow belt, and the influence of that color that seems to pop up everywhere from that point forward prove that it is anything but unintentional. Some of the examples are obvious, like the shopping scene where he buys nothing but yellow products, and it’s elaborated upon by the cashier mentioning it, but there are other scenes so obscure in size that really require future re-watches of the film to catch them all. This takes character framing to a whole new level, and provides food for thought in the absorbing quality that Stearns provides in transferring the mental capacity to the outside where it vibrantly flows with pride alongside the character it is intentionally supposed to represent.
– Delicious dialogue. Not only are the lines in the film clever in the way they construct conversations, but also in how the actors are directed with a dead-pan to deliver emotional lines that should feel more animated. This only adds to the comical layer of the film that I mentioned earlier, that further feeds into this unique and satirical world where nothing sounds too strange, and allows the actors to commit to an idea so silly and contrived that it feels routine in a male-dominated society like the one depicted in the movie. Likewise, jokes that are originally introduced during the first act return later on, and bring with them greater landing power because we the audience now grasp the situation in better detail after living through it with our central protagonist, and understanding what he’s gone through to reach this transformation in mentality.
– Visual props. To rebel even more in Stearns cleverness, the film rewards audiences so in-tuned with scenes by supplanting visual extras that honestly land just as effectively as the rich dialogue. Particularly present during the first act, we are treated to a couple of jokes in the form of a male magazine with the male icon on the cover, and a combination of guns, cologne advertisements, and female nudity within its pages, as well as an opening scene payoff that is genius for how it turns the advantage of a character dynamic on its head. Without spoiling much, two strangers are insulting a character in their native language, and we learn that their assumptions get the best of them. Where the visual comes in is during the second setting scene, where one reveal shows us everything that we need to know about the prior scene, and pays it off in a way that could be condemning if our attention is wandering during these initial minutes.
– Predictability. There are essentially two twists during the second half of the movie, and with relative ease I was able to predict each of them correctly. It’s not that the film shows itself too early, but rather its lack of moving room creatively within the story and minimal amount of characters leaves it claustrophobic with the available directions it could take with its mystery. The second twist is more something that happens within the reveal of a scene that I saw coming because of how uneven the odds were against a particular character. Both are credible reveals within the movie, but ones that I saw coming from early on in the second act, and the focus for the second half of the film revolved around this element of the reveal that I waited for the screenplay to catch-up to.
– Plot conveniences. This is the biggest problem I had with the film, as many coincidences during the first act are a stretch at best for lining up properly to the plot twist reveals that I previously mentioned. Things perfectly work to the advantage of the movie’s antagonist without really taking the time to understand how such things are possible, and why Casey would choose something like karate over the permanency and intimidation of owning a gun. Hell, the whole jumping happens when Casey is walking home from a supermarket trip that he walked to. We find out later that he owns a car, so why would you walk at night in a dangerous neighborhood to a store when you have valuable transportation? It doesn’t get any easier with the progression of the film, as there are a couple of situations that are easily escapable for someone with the intelligence of Casey that the film must ignore to further prolong the conflict. This also feels like a world where no cops or consequences exist, giving us about as much urgency within Casey’s blackmail conflict that never allows itself the time or opportunity to flesh itself out properly to coincide with the weight that we are visually told resides within this deal.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+