Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club (1999)

Hugely popular, I find it widely misunderstood but also a little too in love with its own cleverness

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Edward Norton (The Narrator), Brad Pitt (Tyler Durden), Helena Bonham Carter (Marla Singer), Meat Loaf (Robert Paulson), Jared Leto (Angel Face), Holt McCallany (Mechanic), Zach Grenier (Richard Chessler), Eion Bailey (Ricky), Peter Lacangelo (Lou), Thom Gossom Jnr (Detective Stern)

When Fight Club was made, the studio didn’t get it. You can’t blame them. Studio suits sat down and just couldn’t understand what on earth this primal cry of anger, giving voice to the disillusioned and dispossessed, was going on about. Fight Club was categorically not for them. I’d managed to miss it for decades, so it’s an odd experience watching this angry millennial film for the first time when I’m now exactly the sort of punch-clock office drone its characters despised. I think I missed the boat.

Our narrator (Edward Norton) is cynical, bored and feels his life is going nowhere. Suffering from crippling insomnia, he takes to attending support groups for various terminal illness survivors, releasing his own ennui among the pain there. It’s where he meets fellow ‘suffering tourist’, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), whom he’s attracted to while resenting her intrusion on his own private therapy. Shortly after he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a charismatic rebel with whom he founds an underground bare-knuckle fight group for men who can’t express themselves in the modern world. But Durden’s charismatic, anti-corporatist rhetoric tips more and more into radicalism and he starts an affair with Marla. What will our Narrator do?

Sometimes I think Fight Club might be one of the most misunderstood films ever. So many people who have fallen in love with it talk about it being an attack on conformity in our cold modern world. Of its celebration of people leaving the oppressive, mindless 9-5 grind to find something true and real that makes them feel alive. To be fair, Fight Club is partly this. But how do our heroes do this? By starting a cult where the bitter, resentful and inadequate search for meaning through violence and becoming part of a monolithic organisation that bans independent thought. Essentially, it’s a cult movie, exploring what makes people who can’t relate to the monotony of the “real life”, embrace an oppressive set of rules simply because those rules make them feel important.

This misreading by many is a tribute to the brilliance of Fincher’s direction. Fincher’s film is radical, sexy, pulsating and exciting. It’s shot like a mix of music video and experimental feature and crammed with cutting, witty lines that skewer and puncture the ”grown up” ideas that so many find weary and tiresome. It’s a modern Catcher in the Rye and it pours all its functional, dynamically written anti-establishment rhetoric into the mouth of one of the world’s most charismatic stars in Brad Pitt and allows him to let rip.

Fincher’s Fight Club is really, to me, about the intoxicating excitement of anger, of how easy it is to pour your frustrations into actions that are destructive and selfish but which you can invest with a higher meaning. School shooters, incels – many of them see themselves as stars in their own Fight Clubs, as cool anti-establishment rebels who see some higher truth beyond the rest of us. Fight Club is a brilliantly staged exposure of how this mindset is created and how damn attractive it can be.

Because when Pitt lets rip with this mantra on finding truth and purpose, turning your back on Ikea and Starbucks and all the other soulless “stuff” people find important, you want to stand up and cheer with him. You can see that the attraction of forming a secret brotherhood with a series of other similarly frustrated men, who feel emasculated and purposeless in a world where they can’t do something meaningful like fight Nazis or hunt deer. How they could find satisfaction and a sense of masculine validation in punching seven shades of shit out of each other. Because, as the adrenalin and the blood flows, and the teeth go flying, you feel alive.

It’s certainly a lot more fun than trying to actually deal with your problems. Fight Club is really about this sort of toxic, masculine anger and bitterness leads us to fail to deal with our problems. The Narrator needs Durden, because he can’t manage to process his own feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. He can’t deal with ennui – except through a constant stream of cynical, privately spoken, bitter remarks – and when he meets a girl he likes, he can’t cope with that either.

Durden comes into his life straight after Marla does, and Durden does everything with Marla the Narrator can’t. He flirts with, impresses and fucks her. That’s the sort of thing the Narrator (literally) can only dream about doing. The film builds towards the Narrator realising that, by embracing Durden, he is denying himself the possibility of something real with an actual kindred spirit (screwed up as Marla is, she has decency and empathy). Fight Club – much as many of its fans who find the final act “disappointing” don’t want to admit it – is about putting away childish resentments and growing up. Even if the Narrator is culpable for the things Durden does – and only threats to Marla awaken his acknowledgement that he should do something – he recognises the aimless, irresponsible and dangerous anger of Durden is not healthy.

Because Fight Club centralises a group of terrorists who tell themselves they are plucky anarchists who don’t want to hurt anyone – but we know it never stops there. Especially when you have a mesmeric, Hitlerish figure like Durden driving people on. Pitt is superb as this raving id monster, a hypnotic natural leader who delivers rhetorical flourishes with such intense and utter belief he essentially brainwashes a legion of men into following his orders without question – acid burns, bombs and death don’t even make them blink, just even more willing to follow his orders.

Fincher works so hard to make us understand the attraction of all this that sometimes Fight Club – with its flash filtered look set in a nearly perpetual night – is more than a little pleased with its impish menace. It also takes a little too much delight in teasing its infamous twist – it’s a little too delighted with the “ah but when you watch it back” ingeniousness with which it presents a melange of scenes (the twist also makes you realise later just how brainwashed and dangerous the men in this cult must be, once we realise what they saw and how little they reacted to it). Fight Club also, for all its cool lines and winning gags, has an air of pop psychology to it. (I am very willing to overlook its cheap anarcho-socialism as we are very clearly invited to see this as empty nonsense – for all many people watching the film don’t.)

Edward Norton is extremely good in a challenging role, a stunted and bitter dweeb who dreams of being a player and barrels along with ever more dangerous events. He walks a fine line between a sheltered follower and true acolyte, in several moments showing more than a flash of Durden’s ballsy, take-no-chances, sadism-tinged determination when you least expect it. It’s the sort of performance designed to make sense in the whole, not in the moment – and on that score it’s exquisite. He also makes a wonderful pairing with Helena Bonham Carter, exploding her bonnet reputation with a part that’s rough-edged, unpredictable but surprisingly humane and vulnerable.

Is Fight Club a masterpiece? I’m not sure. It’s a very clever, sharp and dynamic piece of film-making designed to pull the wool over your eyes (in more ways than one). But it can also be overly pleased with itself and does such a superb job of getting you to empathise with the deluded and violent that when it gear changes in the final act it never quite lands as it should. It feels like an angry teenager’s idea of the greatest film ever made (and you can’t deny it digs into the same “loner who sees the deeper truth” vibe that helped make The Matrix a phenomenon later that year). It’s Fincher at his young, punk best – and maybe Fight Club got all this out of his system (you can’t believe the same man made this and Curious Case of Benjamin Button), but for me it lives in the shadow of Fincher’s dark and dangerous Seven, a film which explores similar themes but with more humanity and greater depth than Fight Club.

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