Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a meek man. He gets bullied at work by the very clique he wishes most to belong to. He photocopies their favourite tittie magazine in black and white xerox to study it, and by doing so, completely misses the point.
One night, coming home with dog food, he is attacked by a motorcycle gang and beaten within an inch of his life. He survives and decides to make some changes. He signs up for karate lessons at a dojo where we encounter toxic masculinity at its most pungent. He learns punches and kicks, but more importantly, how to be a MAN, a manly MAN: to listen to metal, to learn German rather than French, to replace his beloved wiener dog with a more aggressive variety. He’s also encouraged to beat people as severely as he was beaten. These changes do in fact make him more confident. And also a dick.
Nothing in this film is played for laughs. In fact, it’s delivered largely in deadpan monotone, a stylistic choice applied fairly evenly throughout the cast. It takes a minute to get used to this, or get over it maybe, but it’s also an important clue that we’re investing in satire and critique, and if the film seems a little outrageous, a little over the top, well, that’s the point.
Casey is quickly swept up by the dojo’s charismatic instructor, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and hardcore brown belt but second class citizen Anna (Imogen Poots). If it sounds like a cult, good. It is not not a cult. But it’s also kind of karate, a homoerotic, needlessly violent, testament to testosterone. But when Casey gets promoted to Sensei’s mysterious night classes, it’s a whole new world of brotherhood, brutality and a special brand of hyper-masculinity that requires constant proving.
The humour is dry and dark as hell; in this script, a well-chosen word can wound as much as hand or foot. Or gun, though guns are for the weak. Eisenberg is well-suited for the role; he channels nascent neuroses as well as the yearning to be more. Writer-director Riley Stearns is perhaps a little inconsistent, but is brave in his stinging skewering of American masculinity, economic with words but generous with derision. It’s a little hard to take at times, but patience will be rewarded.