Greetings again from the darkness. This special screening included a simulcast of the Red Carpet arrivals at the Brooklyn Alamo Drafthouse hosted by Eric Davis of Fandango, and the broadcast went to many cities around the U.S. What immediately struck me from the interviews with writer-director Riley Stearns and co-stars Jesse Eisenberg and Alessandro Nivola was how carefully they chose their words in describing the story and their characters. It was clear what we were about to watch was not just another acting gig, and certainly not some mainstream mush. According to those involved, this was something altogether different.
Casey Davies (Eisenberg) is a corporate accountant. He’s a meek guy. Casey is an outsider at work, and has no social life beyond his TV and devoted dachshund (because a poodle would be too obvious). To put it bluntly, he’s a lonely guy. One evening, whilst walking back from the grocery store to buy dog food, Casey is mugged and brutally attacked by a motorcycle gang. This leaves Casey not only alone and battered, but also afraid. His decision to buy a gun gets sidetracked when a local dojo catches his eye. He’s drawn to the whispered guidance of the Sensei (Nivola), and the confidence and power derived from the self-defense skills being taught.
Filmmaker Stearns takes on toxic masculinity in a subversive and satirical manner. His dark comedy is played straight by the participants, putting viewers in a state of awkward laughter and uncertain reactions to what we are witnessing. It’s both exaggerated and nuanced, as there are informative subtleties in both the dialogue and the mannerisms of the characters. Imogen Poots plays Anna, perhaps the most interesting character in the film. She’s a talented brown belt frustrated by her Sensei’s unwillingness to award her with a much-deserved black belt. Instead, she is relegated to teaching kids’ classes, and only gets to shine in the mysterious night classes. It’s a shame this role wasn’t expanded to take advantage of Ms. Poots’ talent.
Ah yes, the night classes. Participants must be personally invited by Sensei, and it’s here where Casey finally begins to understand the dark forces at work. Henry, played by David Zellner (co-producer with his brother Nathan) is so desperate for Sensei’s stamp of approval that he makes the tragic mistake of attending night class without being invited. The violence in the film elevates quickly.
We witness the changes in Casey as he gains confidence, and the many transitions in his life take the form of shifting colors, foreign language and music. Misogyny and toxic masculinity were also addressed in the recent action-comedy STUBER, but here, Mr. Stearns’ voice challenges us to analyze what we are laughing at. Nivola’s Sensei is simultaneously funny and frightening, and demented and enlightened. The insecurities that accompany the male ego are contrasted with the extra hurdles women must clear to be accepted as equals. These people could possibly be caricatures, but possibly not. There is much confusion over how to be a man in today’s world – what it means, how to act, how to control sparks of aggression, how to prevent the misuse of power. We watch as Casey becomes so similar to those he so despised. We also learn that the Alpha male may not be male after all. These are some serious topics buried within the lesson of “kick with your hands and punch with your feet.” It’s an offbeat film presented in a way that makes us sit up and take note.
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