'The Art of Self-Defense' Director Explains Film's Shock, Violent Ending

Director Riley Stearns and Jesse Eisenberg unpack the twist ending of 'The Art of Self-Defense.'

In Riley Stearns’ dark comedy, The Art of Self-Defense, Jesse Eisenberg stars as Casey, a neurotic wimp who takes up karate after a vicious assault from a motorcycle gang. In his quest to regain confidence and win respect from other people, Casey ventures down a twisted, serpentine path that comes down to a truly violent ending.

Confused by that ending? In interviews, director Riley Stearns and star Jesse Eisenberg tell Inverse exactly what is going on with Casey and his world as The Art of Self-Defense comes to its dramatic finale.

Spoilers for The Art of Self-Defense ahead.

In the ending of The Art of Self-Defense, the film delivers on a rather literal Chekhov’s Gun: Casey sets a duel against Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), the cult-like karate teacher who is not only responsible for Casey’s assault but assaults everywhere in town to get people to sign up for karate classes.

While Casey adopted most of Sensei’s teachings, he never became fully brainwashed. Thus, he found a philosophical loophole to get rid of Sensei. At the top of their duel to decide the fate of the dojo, Casey takes out his gun (which audiences thought he didn’t buy) and shoots Sensei in the head.

Though Sensei had a strict rule against guns, Casey used that to his advantage. In essence, it doesn’t matter Casey cheated, because Casey’s not dead.

The Art of Self Defense
Jesse Eisenberg stars in 'The Art of Self-Defense' with Imogen Poots as "Anna," a brown belt who is overdue for a black belt but held back by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).

It’s as funny and shocking as that iconic moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones gets rid of a flashy swordsman with a bullet right in between his eyes. But as Stearns and Eisenberg see it, the stakes were a lot more dire, and a lot more different, than Indy’s.

“I felt it was more important thematically, as a filmgoer, and more interesting for Casey to take on that moral dilemma,” Stearns tells Inverse. “Is it better for me to break the rules an do this thing that is horrible and against my moral fiber to win and defeat this evil, or is it more important to do things the right way and everything fails? I thought it was more interesting and funnier that Casey basically decides to cheat. He sacrifices his morality in the process but he knows he’s doing it for the right reasons.”

Eisenberg, who stars as Casey in The Art of Self-Defense, also asked Stearns why Casey uses a gun. “Riley said, Casey has to compromise his own integrity to right the wrongs of the dojo,” Eisenberg says. “The gun is the compromise. He compromises his own strict sense of integrity and ethics because the bigger picture is getting rid of the poison, which is the cult leader Sensei, and to put Anna in the position she belongs which is running the dojo.”

“I do like the film has an ending,” adds Stearns. “It ties up loose ends but does so in a way that doesn’t leave our character untarnished. I think it’s important for him to sacrifice a bit of himself for the good of everyone else, and that’s more interesting to me. For better or worse, Casey comes out, in the end, stronger but not untainted.”


The Art of Self-Defense hits theaters on July 12.

Media via Bleecker Street