Just saw this film last night. I can’t remember the last truly dark comedy I saw that was equal parts dark and comedy. The film tackles some complex subjects with such absurdity that it borders on farce, led by strong performances from the three leads, with Alessandro Nivola being the clear standout.
He’s such a captivating villain because throughout the film you do get the impression that he genuinely cares about Casey and the development of his “manhood”. He’s a charismatic “Sensei”, bordering on cult-like. He inspires loyalty until Casey starts seeing the cracks in the psyche.
In regards to the plot structure, it is basically Fight Club. Even one of the film’s twists closely mirrors one of the actions committed by Fight Club’s “Project Mayhem”. Hell, even the themes of Toxic Masculinity are here (but increased to a level that is incredibly on-the-nose)
But if the film’s skeleton is Fight Club, then its flesh and blood are Napoleon Dynamite. Whereas Fight Club was this really slick film that just oozed this sense of counter-cultural “coolness” (for lack of a better word), Self-Defense deliberately goes for a far more uncomfortable tone.
The characters are all these awkward, hyper sincere people with absolutely no sense of self-awareness; and the film’s humor comes from seeing the skewed perspectives on which these people see the world and how they interact with it and each other.
Throw in depictions of violence that are so brutal that they seem more like they belong in a snuff film than an action movie, and you get a film that is deliberately difficult to watch if you’re sensitive to the uncomfortable scenarios it sets up.
The film, at its core, is a scathing condemnation of toxic masculinity presented in a sardonic way. I thought it was excellent, I’d easily give it a 7.5 or 8/10.
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