Classic Review: Fight Club (1999)

I’m breaking Fight Club’s first two rules here: i.e. don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie.

Fight Club is angry. It’s nasty, filled with vitriol and it wants everyone to notice. It’s a bitter and bitterly funny exposé of a hyper-masculine fantasy, itself a critique of a so-called “IKEA lifestyle” whereby men are domesticated through consumer culture and societal expectations. Its fittingly macho opening credit sequence leads us through the micro-landscapes of our Narrators brain (the protagonist played by Edward Norton) with what were in 1999, cutting edge computer effects and an aggressively pounding electronic soundtrack. It ends with the barrel of a handgun lodged firmly in his mouth by charismatic confederate, now cult icon Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Mere seconds have passed and director David Fincher’s nihilistic tendencies are already palpable in a film that offers chaotic catharsis but no actual answers.

This sequence marks the end of the film. The Narrators acute insomnia marks the beginning, “When you have insomnia, you’re never really asleep… and you’re never really awake” he describes with an on the nose reference to the feelings of listlessness he has about life. At the suggestion of a doctor, he visits a support group for victims of testicular cancer to put his comparatively minor suffering into perspective. The afflicted men chant “Yes, we’re men. Men is what we are” to fight their feelings of emasculation and offer the Narrator the emotional support that allows him to cope with his existential crisis and timid lifestyle, previously and unsuccessfully combatted through feverish home furniture and appliance purchases – “I flipped through the catalogue and wondered: What kind of dining set defines me as a person?” The Narrator starts participating in multiple support groups for various inflictions, none of which he has. He feels his lie exposed when fellow liar and support group addict Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) encroaches on his new hobby; no longer can he cry, so no longer can he sleep.

Fight club bitch tits
“Bob had bitch tits”

Marla’s entering his life, along with a gas leak that destroys his entire home (including all of his possessions) and his meeting Tyler Durden, a fascinating soap salesman on board a business flight, all lead to the creation of Fight Club: an illegal underground group that allows men to indulge in cathartic, animalistic aggression through fisticuffs. Tyler and the Narrator spearhead the group that soon becomes a movement in response to the capitalistic society that treats itself as the norm. Free from his possessions and former mindset – It’s just, when you buy furniture, you tell yourself, that’s it. That’s the last sofa I’m gonna need. Whatever else happens, I’ve got that sofa problem handled” – the Narrator falls to the whim of Tyler and his anarchy. This transforms into public hostility – starting fights with people outside of the club, vandalizing property, stealing human fat from liposuction clinics to make and sell soap “We were selling rich women their own fat asses back to them” – a direct response to Tyler’s own perception of the feminisation of men, the so-called middle children of history, the pissed off generation Xers with no purpose. His misogyny runs deep; when the Narrator finds himself homeless, Tyler quips, “It could be worse. A woman could cut off your penis while you’re sleeping and toss it out the window of a moving car”. It’s the kind of humorous, absurdist display Fincher has become best known for. He later describes his fervent followers as a generation of men raised by women and sees their absent fathers as models for God, “Fuck damnation, man! Fuck redemption! We are God’s unwanted children? So be it!” This is the basis for his anarchy.

The first act of Fight Club is an intriguing, if somewhat smirking look at modern ennui. I love the impossibly precise camera trickery, achieved through CGI still in its teenage years. One clever early sequence shows the Narrator walking through his ever-evolving apartment: it looks like an IKEA advertisement. The film is bursting with unique editing tricks; Tyler, who once had a job as a movie projectionist, is spliced in single frames of the film before his proper introduction, much like he would splice frames of male genitalia into family films at work (a minor transgression perhaps to assert his own masculine identity to a wide audience with subtle affect that would soon lead to the major transgressions of Fight Club). We see the insomniac Narrator dream of intense plane crashes and relax into an arctic cave with a talking penguin during a meditative support group activity. This unpredictability initially makes it difficult to stop watching. However, Fight Club is too obvious with its primary critique, frequently outright telling the audience through Norton’s purposefully lethargic narration what it is trying to say; all of the inventive visual imagery is usually for naught.

Fight club Stills
Edward Norton’s Narrator embodies the ill-contentment in all of us

That’s not to say Fight Club isn’t watchable just for the aesthetic and technique alone; the atmosphere is grimy, damp, bloody and unsanitary thanks to the perfectionism poured into the set and costume design, and it’s all filtered through Fincher’s typically mordant outlook. Purposefully off-putting, it is the coldest of his Antarctic filmography. Like Tyler Durden, it can also be intensely dislikable. Where Se7en was a success in its attempt to be unrelentingly bleak, Fight Club proves a difficult watch with an indulgent second act. This is where Fight Club pulls in its most ardent and impressionable fans, with unremitting testosterone-fuelled fighting and posturing. These men realise themselves through brutal beat downs, win or lose, while Tyler spouts the films’ most famous lines about how meaningless cars and jobs and money are and how we’re not special snowflakes and such and such. It’s got the cool bits. It’s got Edward Norton beating “Angel Face” actor Jared Leto until he has no face. It’s got the fucking and the grade-school line. I understand why it has such a hold on people; Norton, Pitt and Carter are incredible actors and the vigorous energy of the film makes the club so alluring and alive in comparison with the weariness of modern day tedium. But through all the machismo, the film muddies its message. If you can bear with the Internet forum-esque smugness and occasionally try-hard edgy humour, it’s admittedly rousing. But Fight Club only stirs in short bursts; its bloated centre is mostly an arduous labyrinth of repetitive posing. The humour occasionally cuts through the distant atmosphere, but it frequently stumbles over its desperate need to appear edgy. The Narrator at one point describes a cancer patient as “the way Meryl Streep’s skeleton would look if you made it smile and walk around the party being extra nice to everybody.”

 Fight Club swells; co-workers give each other knowing looks while upholding its secrecy. A new manifestation soon develops: Project Mayhem and the Narrator finds himself excluded from what is essentially a terrorist organization. Tyler Durden becomes an almost messianic figure, leading his followers with the sort of groupthink he’d previously rallied against. The group trainees – whom Tyler refers to as space monkeys – are required to have $300 ‘burial money’ to join, literally willing to die for the movement.

Here Tyler’s hypocrisy is laid bare; his pride in individuality is undone as his followers lose their names and repeat club mantra with robotic delivery. He has the body of a conscientious gym goer but chastises those who do, “self-improvement is masturbation”. He professes a minimal lifestyle and berates materialism while wearing retro leather jackets and sunglasses. As Project Mayhem loses control, buildings start to burn, people start to die and the Narrator struggles to pull the brakes on a near religious movement that has escaped him. I almost feel whiplash from the sudden transition. It is never made clear why Tyler is hiding this particular aspect of Fight Club from the Narrator, or why exactly the Narrator is repulsed: despite initial hesitation, he has been as enthusiastic and aggressive as Tyler. Only now does he show any trepidation after the film has spent the majority of its running time semi-romanticizing Tyler’s philosophy.

fightclub Tyler
“Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you’re taking giant panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile.” 

This is Fight Club’s Achilles heel; its third act is comprised of a weaker, less interesting denunciation of everything it has passionately stood for previously. Tyler Durden has, despite many of his abhorrent beliefs, become canonized by fans of the film simply because it doesn’t have a strong ending or answer. We soon find out, somewhat plainly, that Durden and the Narrator are dissociated personalities: the unreliable Narrator is Tyler Durden. The trickery recontextualizes some of Fight Club’s weirder moments, especially the hot and cold relationship the two share with Marla (one of the best aspects of the film). Discovering the clues that lead to the twist afterwards, makes for an interesting re-watch but it reforms Tyler as a mere thematic accessory to the film, rather than a real person. Essentially, he is a modern form of the Nietzchean concept of the Übermensch: the Narrator’s own wish fulfillment, the desired self he wishes to see reflected in the mirror. In Tyler’s own words “All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.” It’s a nice touch that after this reveal, Tyler appears with a shaven head. It robs him of some of his own identity and makes his movement appear even more radical.

The film ends with a unique set piece: the Narrator has to stop himself from destroying a district of credit card company headquarters (Tyler’s own idea to wipe away the debt record and let people start life afresh). It is a tonal-wreck by this point so the only thing left to enjoy is the emptying of the bag of tricks Fincher and his screenwriter Jim Uhls have left for us in the final moments. It ends with the only warmth we’ll get to see in the entire film: having “killed” Tyler through a self-inflicted gunshot wound (not without some awkward, meta flashback humour), the Narrator holds hands with the confused Marla to the tune of The Pixies Where is My Mind and watches the buildings fall anyway. It’s nice but I’m left wanting a stronger condemnation of Tyler’s ideology. You can infer that Fight Club tries to suggest that we need to address our human flaws before we can truly address our cultural ones: are there even any workable solutions to our culture? It’s a shame then that Fight Club is only truly memorable when it’s masquerading as a response to the crisis of masculinity.

Through a mishandling of its thematic elements, I’m only able to truly enjoy Fight Club’s craft and more distinct first third.



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