Jody Hill, is that you?!
The Art of Self-Defense is his sort of thematic and tonal tragicomedy concerning the comically-tragic (or is it tragically-comic?) susceptibility of the insecure to adopt — and become radicalized by —- cultish belief systems attached to built-in communities. Such loners gravitate towards not only the allure of these supposed friends, but also the clearly-established social structures they’re a part of, with organizing principles dictated by dogmas that promise to change these self-loathers for the better, for the stronger, to become more socially and societally functional. But this intoxicating order is designed to prey upon their anxieties — erasing some, creating more — all in the name of…perverse loyalty?
Instead of combatting the unchecked norms that foster insecurity in the first place — such as the backwards virtue that equates vulnerability with weakness — these groups in fact double down on such corrosive ideals, in turn perpetuating superficial notions of externally-perceived strength. Once an outcast buys in (literally, because capitalism allows — even promotes? — monetizing the worst of the worst), they’re liable to do practically anything to assert their status on this totem pole.
Toppling this needless hierarchy would be nice, but is the best we can hope for renovating it from the inside into a more favorable form, but one that’s still comprised of the same, potentially-corrosive building blocks that were inherited from, shaped by, and will always bear the fingerprints of the toppled? If that’s the case, do we always birth the means of our own destruction? And will it ultimately lead to the destruction of our destroyers as well?
Throughout the movie, there are shots of the parents sitting idly by as they passively watch their kids becoming indoctrinated to purportedly controlled, “safe” violence, just so they can mindlessly wile away the hours while still entertaining their kids, without caring about the insidious harm latent in teaching developing brains lessons about how to qualify and quantify human interaction in this fashion. The closing credits hammer home this point by positioning the audience as these parents. The camera — AKA our eyes, AKA us — focuses on…a wall; think of it as a visual, almost literal metaphor for watching paint dry — the epitome of doing nothing — as Jesse Eisenberg’s character guides the next generation of Jesse Eisenbergs onto the path that led him to a heinous crime.
Earlier, I wrote that The Art of Self-Defense is a thematic and tonal tragicomedy; the tonal shift from comedy to tragedy is key to understanding its central themes, specifically regarding the aforementioned insidiousness. The early scenes’ plainly ridiculous antics may seem hilarious to us initially, but in the end, the joke will be at our expense for not treating this apparent clowning more seriously when it could be still nipped in the bud. We tend to view jokes as jokes until the joke’s on us. And the punchline won’t be funny; it’ll be fatal. So think about what you consider humorous that requires ignoring the ever-growing hints of darkness it currently feels like only a laughable imitation of — that’s the true art of defending ourselves, and each other.