In honor of the 15th anniversary of “Fight Club” and to coincide with the release of director David Fincher’s latest, “Gone Girl,” I thought I would review this 1999 cult classic. I’m afraid, by talking about it, I’ll be breaking the first two rules of Fight Club. So you’ve been warned…spoilers ahead!
Truth be told, I wasn’t big on “Fight Club” after first seeing it. A lot of the humor escaped me, but in the 15 years since its release, it’s gotten better with each viewing. There’s exuberance in Fincher’s filmmaking, from tricks from the silent era to his use of state-of-the art toys. It’s some of Edward Norton and Brad Pitt’s best work, and Jim Uhls’ script streamlines the novel by Chuck Palahniuk while maintaining his scalding sense of humor.
The film opens with one hell of a credit sequence, which doubles as a tour of the Narrator’s mind. Norton is great in the role, depicting a man so consumed by his possessions that he’s anesthetized himself to everything and everyone else. He has a fridge full of condiments and no food — all decoration but nothing to hang it on. Following super-serious roles in “Primal Fear” and “American History X,” Norton proves he can do comedy. With a gun in his mouth, he wryly observes in voice over “I wonder how clean the gun is.”
Foreshadowed by the credits, we spend the whole movie knocking around the Narrator’s head. One thing that struck me on my recent viewing was the sound design. The movie’s packed with aural touches to cue us into the character’s psychology. In an effort to feel something – anything – the Narrator joins a slew of support groups where he doesn’t belong. At a meeting for testicular cancer, he’s embraced by Meat Loaf’s Bob and begins to cry as a church choir creeps into the soundtrack. In another great moment, Fincher’s (virtual) camera drifts through a wastebasket filled with cups from Starbucks – at which point the Narrator warns that with the advance of deep space exploration, corporations will name everything. What sounds like a sonar ping evokes the vast emptiness of space. [“But Garrett, there’s no sound in space!” I know! I read the “Alien” tagline.]
Particularly in the first half of his career, Fincher occasionally indulged in technical wizardry that could derail scenes. I’m looking at you, “Panic Room.”
Sure, in “Fight Club,” there’s some superfluous digital camera, but I thought Fincher’s choices were really inspired. I’ve already mentioned the “camera” in the wastebasket, but another great moment comes when the Narrator walks through his apartment. Names and descriptions appear over his Ikea-bought items. They consume him. Here’s a man drowning in his possessions.
When his support group scheme is foiled by another faker, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), the Narrator inadvertently creates imaginary friend Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Tyler looks like the Narrator wants to look, acts like he wants to act, and says what he wants to say. Together, the two start Fight Club. It’s an organization where men assemble to re-assert their dominance and truly feel something. Ya know, knuckles to the face or a knee to the ribs. Tyler tells his followers, “We’re the middle children of history…Our Great War’s a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives.” But some roughhousing and a few minor acts of rebellion quickly escalate.
When Bob returns to Fight Club HQ with an exit wound at the back of his head, the Narrator realizes how wildly out of control his organization has spiraled. Only then does he realize that Tyler is a figment of his imagination.
Although the filmmakers have laid out a number of clues, I’ve never gone over the twist with a fine-tooth comb. Frankly, I don’t think it matters that much. This is a film where the Narrator breaks the fourth wall and characters comment on flashback humor. More importantly, “Fight Club” doesn’t leave you with the twist. It’s the jumping-off point for the third act.
The end of this film is ultimately about whether or not the Narrator can suppress the worst aspects of himself, and it’s a joy to behold. There’s a great skewering of the traditional bomb-defusing scene. While the Narrator tries to stop a device designed to level a building, his alter ego goads, “Maybe, since I knew you’d know, I spent all day thinking about the wrong wires.” A confrontation between the Narrator and Tyler ranks among my favorite movie fights. Fincher uses old school tricks like cutting on action and body doubles to give the sense that our Narrator is fighting someone that can do anything and be anywhere. He offers amusing glimpses of security footage that reveal our Narrator is, in fact, just fighting himself.
In one of the movie’s more darkly comedic passages, member of Fight Club surround poor Bob, who’s lying dead on a table. Like lemmings, they repeat after the Narrator, practically chanting “His name is Robert Paulson! His name is Robert Paulson!”
Some criticized the movie for glamorizing this lifestyle, but how anyone could watch these clowns and think the filmmakers are condoning them is beyond me. The film certainly appreciates a certain level of rebellion, but it also demonstrates how easily rebels can fall down the rabbit hole. The block-busting final images (heh heh) represent one man’s struggle with those impulses writ large.
What are your thoughts on “Fight Club?” It’s okay to break the first two rules here, this is a safe place!