Grubby, grimy, scary, bloody, cynical, violent, dangerously whacked-out and very, very funny, Fight Club is itself an act of provocation. It’s a blast at staples of late 20th century life — everything from the Ikea catalog and air travel to Blockbuster Video and the auto industry. It’s also a blast in the face of state-of-the-art Hollywood, putting megabucks to work supporting a study in hallucination. And it’s a challenge to the mainstream audience, which is asked to sympathize with subversion and keep up with a storyline that demands a fairly substantial leap of faith on the part of the viewer. Fight Club is a pitch-black comedy and a phantasmal psychological thriller about the end of the world as we know it, and it’s several times fresher and more exciting than anything I’ve seen this year.
Director David Fincher, working with a smart screenplay by Jim Uhls diluted from the very bleakly satirical novel by Chuck Paluhniak, tackles this by taking an almost playful anticapitalist ideology to disturbing lengths. The film posits that when young men are pressured into becoming condo-dwelling consumers with jobs that don’t suit them, they’ll start craving sensation to defibrillate their flatlined lives. And as disillusionment and anger bubble up over the prevalent commercial messages selling an American dream of rock stars and Gucci-cute asses, something’s got to give.
You could say that Fight Club is about the naivete of a generation — about how Generation X has been snookered by a prevailing culture that it was too innocent to mistrust and is now ready to rumble. The contradiction is that it’s a cautionary tale, but it’s also wish fulfillment. Though we recognize in our hearts that smashing up Starbucks and destroying financial institutions is no rational answer to society’s woes, either from a practical or a humanitarian standpoint, there’s no denying that, on some level, they’re attractive ideas. With the distribution of wealth in America and in the rest of the world more lopsided than it’s ever been, isn’t the idea of wiping out the world’s financial records and forcing everyone to start at some democratic equal somehow a flavorfully anarchic ideal?
The story begins in the head of the film’s relatively mild-mannered narrator, played by Edward Norton. This narrator (billed in the credits as Narrator, but apparently known in the screenplay as Jack) has a well-paying corporate job and lives in what seems to be a fairly posh high-rise condo. Still, he complains of a certain numbness, as though the necessities of existence at the end of this millennium have emptied his life of all feeling. He recognizes this soullessness in the pages of the Ikea furniture catalog, in the empty promises of television advertising, and in the dronelike, fundamentally dehumanizing nature of his job.
Enter Tyler Durden, embodied by Brad Pitt. Our narrator meets Tyler quite by accident — he’s seated next to him on an airplane — and befriends him out of necessity when he returns home from a business trip to find only the charred remains of his condo, what’s left of his possessions scattered on the street far below. Jack calls him up in search of a place to stay. Tyler says that would be fine and, oh yeah, asks Ikea Boy if he wouldn’t mind hitting him just as hard as he can.
That’s the genesis of fight club, Tyler’s stopgap solution to the problems facing both him and the narrator. The idea is that if you don’t feel something in your everyday life, at least you can feel something late at night, in the dingy basement below a seedy bar where acquaintances and strangers gather to pummel each other. The volume of every other annoying facet of your existence, Tyler notes, gets lowered a notch or two. The experiment is a success, and pretty soon disenfranchised men are gathering from far and wide to participate in Tyler Durden’s fight clubs, which begin to spread across the country.
Like David Cronenberg’s Crash, this is a movie about a sort of fetish that probably doesn’t exist and that the audience is not expected to find attractive. Both films map out startlingly similar territory, however, with the characters making up for their unfulfilling daily existence by gathering in packs for a ritual that helps them feel more alive. The difference is that Cronenberg views the erotically charged car crash as an end in itself — he leaves his characters still searching for the perfect, deadly collision. Fincher, however, looks at fight club as a defensible reaction to bland existence that quickly mutates into a cult-like fascist state that makes its goal destruction of both society and the self.
That’s because Tyler has bigger ideas for fight club. His real aim is to subvert polite society. One of his odd jobs is as projectionist, where he splices frames from pornographic movies into family films. (The audience reaction to this is perhaps the funniest thing in the film.) Another is waiter at a posh restaurant, where he urinates in the clam sauce. Before long, though, he’s turning fight club from a consensual underground boxing ring into an elite group of anti-social terrorists known as Project Mayhem that serve their fearless leader, Tyler Durden, with a discomfittingly fascist zeal. And that’s where the film’s mood turns sour.
For the most part, Fight Club is unblinkingly complicit in Tyler’s activities. In one of Tyler’s best gags, Project Mayhem wipes the inventory of a chain video store with bulk tape erasers. The joke is on not only Blockbuster, whose logo is clearly visible at the top of the frame during one exterior shot, but also Fox, whose movies (in compliance, no doubt, with some corporate policy mandating self-promotion) line the store’s shelves. Elsewhere, Tyler’s minions boast that they figured out a way to destroy a piece of corporate art and take out a franchise coffee shop all at the same time — the equivalent, I guess, of a double word score in Scrabble.
Not only does Fight Club play Tyler’s merry pranksterism for laughs, but it integrates those pranks into the film itself. Even before Tyler appears as a character, his presence is felt in single-frame inserts spliced into Fight Club itself. Later on, we’ll see the edges of the film become visible at the sides of the screen as the celluloid apparently vibrates in the projector gate during a close-up on Tyler’s face. In this way, Fincher is taking a cue from Bergman’s Persona, which dramatized the conflict between two personalities (as well as their figurative merging and literal transposition) through a similar reliance on ideas of the cinema and the physicality of celluloid.
In its treatment of manhood, Fight Club clearly suggests that if young men have been bred as consumers, they’ve also been neutered. What else is the notion of fight club, if not a primal expression of fire-in-the-belly rage? And from the testicular cancer support groups where Jack first learns to cry, burying his face in the gigantic “bitch tits” grown by one poor fella (Meat Loaf) who took too many steroid shots, to the repeated nods toward castration anxiety, the film clearly depicts men in the process of re-masculating themselves through violence. To Tyler’s credit, his message goes beyond testosterone — he’s also interested in reminding the world of what it wanted to be when it grew up, and shocking us out of satisfaction with the lives that we got instead.
Two scenes, however, clue first the audience and finally Jack into the destructive path that Tyler has led him down. In the film’s most brutal sequence (imagine Raging Bull and then some), Jack pounds the living hell out of a blond fight-clubber’s face, noting afterward that he simply “wanted to destroy something beautiful” — a chilling definition of nihilism, which is presumably something he’s been struggling against. And in another, after Jack tries to clue the brainwashed soldiers of Project Mayhem into the fact that a slain comrade was a human being with a name, the gathered troops twist his words into a proclamation that only in death does a man deserve a name.
So for the movie’s climax, we have Jack rebelling against the teachings of Tyler Durden and trying to figure out how to block Tyler’s pending acts of cataclysmic destruction. How this unfolds is predicated on a psychological premise that seemed wonky to me both in the book and in the movie, despite its importance to the story. Fincher handles it with aplomb, but it veers close to nonsensicality in the final reel. Intense, pin-sharp performances from both Pitt and Norton keep it from collapsing into silliness.
Fincher directs this chaotic fable with grace, urgency, and knockout stylistics. Fight Club represents a distinct break in tone from his earlier films, which presented similarly bleak visuals in less frenzied fashion. Both Se7en and, especially, The Game built moments of gorgeous, wide-open melancholy into their roller-coaster storytelling. Think of that long drive into the desert, broken up by the power lines pointing the way back toward civilization, in Se7en, or the recurrent home-movie-styled flashbacks of Nicholas Van Orton’s father falling to his death in The Game.
The much more frenetically paced Fight Club‘s equivalents to those moments of dark beauty are wild glimpses of horror, surrealism, and destruction — the narrator’s fantasies of his airplane disintegrating in midflight, his visits to an internal cave where he discovers that his power animal is a penguin (slide! it commands, before belly-flopping onto the ice), or a shot of the collapse of financial civilization as seen through corporate picture windows as tall and wide as a movie screen. At its flashiest, Fight Club uses a computer-graphics assist to create impossible camera moves that depict, for example, the destruction of a high-rise condo. It’s the bratty, showy answer to the more classical kineticism of a Scorsese movie, and it works like a charm. This whole picture might seem insufferably indulgent if Fincher weren’t so utterly confident, and didn’t have such an unfailing aesthetic sense. As usual, he gets first-rate support from his crew, with a hip soundtrack by the Dust Brothers (of Paul’s Boutique and Odelay fame) and enveloping surround sound designed by Ren Klyce. Some of the cinematography (by Jeff Cronenweth) is a little murky for my tastes but certainly complements the material, and the film editing (by Jim Haygood) is both fluid and clever without once drawing attention to itself.
At the same time, some of Fincher’s limitations are becoming clear. His three most recent films share the same quasi-macho fixation on what it means to be a man in a man’s world (only in Alien3, which he has since disowned, did Fincher work with a female character in any meaningful way). Love is something we must take for granted in Fincher’s universe, since his characters hardly demonstrate the ability to love. Sex is touched upon, but barely dealt with — the homoerotic overtones of the fight clubs are completely sublimated and the requisite lovemaking scene between Tyler and depressed hanger-on Marla (Helena Bonham Carter, funny and mostly effective but largely irrelevant to the proceedings) is rendered in nearly nonrepresentational style (using a body double and heavy cg assist).
Fincher’s Se7en, The Game, and Fight Club are all characterized by a vigorous gamesmanship that pulls the audience into the film through an overt attack on its perceptions and expectations. Out of these three films, I think only Se7en approaches greatness, because of its fascinating morbidity and its utterly credible cry of despair in the face of horror. The Game was his stab at a happy ending, and Fight Club is his big satirical move. Who knows where he’ll go next, and with what budget? But one of these days, I’d like to see him try for understatement.