We are just days after the 15th anniversary of Fight Club, the movie that made David Fincher one of the new greats to countless young cinephiles, as well as drastically divide movie-goers and critics. It is one of the definitive cult classics of the past two decades; massively hyped before release by 20th Century Fox only to land with the kind of thud one might expect from a film this visceral and easily misunderstood.
With Fincher’s notoriety only growing in the time since its release, having garnered Oscar nominations and several big hits (including the current chart topper Gone Girl), I’m sitting down with Fight Club in its entirety for the first time in many years. I’m curious…was I nuts for loving it so?
Adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club is about a nameless man (Edward Norton) who is a tired gear in the wheel of end of the 20th century American society. Norton’s character, an insomniac, is largely miserable, save for his stuff. His stuff is excellent however; name-brand and high-quality.
There are also his therapy sessions, none of which are of the standard shrink type. Norton gets his balancing by going to support groups for cancer patients and the like, where real suffering has occurred. Said suffering allows for genuine emotional openness, even if his origin point is a false one. The trek through lies and tears is interrupted by Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), a fellow “impostor” who participates in the same tactics for personal healing. Our narrator is not pleased.
On a flight home from a work trip, Norton meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt); who is basically the opposite of him. Tyler isn’t burdened by polite social norms, nor does he give a crap about material things. He does have a home though, which comes in handy after Norton’s spiffy apartment blows up and he has nobody to turn to but Tyler. Through his newfound friend, Norton discovers a new type of emotional healing; fighting. By having an honest and bare-knuckle brawl with another man, he can let all of the anxiety out, sans arrests or ego.
From here, Norton’s mindset evolves, as he begins to let go of his desire to fit culture’s definitions of what a man should be. Soon though, the influence of Tyler begins to spread to others, the underground fight club that seemed small and intimate starts popping up across the nation. Plus, the act of chaos and violence end up happening to those that seemingly didn’t ask to be a part of it. “Project Mayhem” is growing and Norton is uncomfortable with where it’s going.
My friend Charlie and I are probably the only two people in my high school who saw Fight Club upon release, or so it seemed. We both loved it and couldn’t stop telling friends to watch it. The film’s wit, the visual insanity of it all, the themes, the twist; every bit of the movie resonated with my 17 year-old self. Sure, swaths of it were above my head. That core of fuck society’s expectations of cool and normal was perfect for my teenage brain.
With the movie bombing so badly, it was out of theatres before anyone other than Charlie and I to see it. When it finally hit VHS at the local Blockbuster, it became a staple of most weekends, with its first rental leading to a three times in one day viewing session. The book was purchased, as was a t-shirt and poster, with Fight Club turning into one of my top ten films in a hurry.
The legacy of Fight Club is waning for people. It’s still held in high esteem by most. Amongst Fincher aficionados, of which I would consider myself, Zodiac has become the favorite, with Se7en and The Social Network behind it. I’m not sure if this is due to the quality of those other films or a sense that the often anarchistic spirit of Fight Club doesn’t burn the same fires for an older viewer.
I’ll be surprised to be as passionate about it as I was in my teens. I would also be surprised if the movie’s isn’t at minimum still very good.
There are so many things that are difficult to separate oneself from while watching Fight Club in 2014.
First up, and this is nothing new, is knowing that Norton’s “Jack,” as the script calls him, is also Tyler. Obviously this has feeling isn’t 2014 specific, but the twist is such a defining element of it, it can be hard not to get caught up in the gamesmanship of Jim Uhls’ adaptation and Fincher’s direction. The reveal isn’t and has never been what makes the film a cult classic; it is a ripe element nonetheless that can also be a distraction.
Secondly, of course, is the ending. Watching a series of skyscrapers collapse around themselves into dust and debris comes with heavier connotations then it did in the fall of 1999. The image is easier now than in 2001 or the years closely following it. Still, that sense of energy that comes with the relative demise of millions of debt remains slightly less visceral.
A bevy of other things flood the brain with a new viewing. Tyler at one point discusses the era’s lack of war or financial depression; both of which aren’t entirely potent points 15 years on from the statement.
Yet, underneath these facets that date Fight Club to a time and place is a movie whose themes, passions and cinematic skills haven’t aged a bit. Fincher’s film remains a gripping one built on the backbones of a terrific script and three fabulous performances. Uhls’ writing reworks the narrative beats of the novel while keeping the tenor and poisoned monologues of Palahniuk’s book. The one-liners still burn high as Pitt’s Tyler rants about “The things you own end up owning you,” or “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” Each of which were scribbled down by yours truly and taped to his high school walls.
Equally impressive is the Marla character. At first sight batty and outrageous, knowing what we do about the narrator, sympathies quickly jump to her side. Of all the times the filmmakers are playful with the dual personality, it’s when they run with Marla’s romance with the Jack/Tyler that it may be it’s most intriguing. This is due in small part to Helena Bonham Carter’s performance, which manages to riff on deranged and strangely sweet in correlating tones. Her recent work has included an array of oddballs; none with the piss or vinegar of Marla.
Of course none of this works without Norton and Pitt. The latter gives a turn that can be called sweaty and cool. Tyler is the rebellious friend most people were always a little wary to hang out with, even as their lingers a jealousy over the person’s comfort with everyone, including him/herself. This has been a regular trope of doppelganger cinema, weirdly heightened and more honest here. Often in those tales there is a root of jealousy. In Fight Club, that only pops in when others seemingly take over the role of best friend and closest confidant.
What was perhaps most invigorating about a return to the movie is Edward Norton. At the time, it felt like the actor could do wrong, coming off Primal Fear, The People vs. Larry Flynt and American History X. After 2002’s 25th Hour, Norton’s career hasn’t been the same. He has shown a knack for supporting comedic turns (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel), while his dramatic picks have been consistently mediocre, doing little to reveal new shades to his acting abilities. He is utterly terrific in Fight Club, deceptively funny in the more darkly comedic points, appropriately pathetic when asked for and selling the insanity of his insanity to perfection. The anxiety he is overwhelmed by when he can’t find Tyler amidst the “Project Mayhem” rise sells his character astutely. He is a man uncomfortable in his own skin, requiring the direction of others to be his best self. The tone he and Fincher achieve in the revelation scene is magical. Pitt’s Tyler, cocky as ever, forcing Norton to face the facts, with Nolan hitting the tenor with a soft touch. The movie isn’t going for a gotcha feel, instead it hits like cold water to the face, Norton’s eyes darting around as he and all of us are engulfed by the info. Even at this most serious of plot points, nobody is going too dark, instead opting for amusingly twisted.
Some have argued, and still do, that Fight Club is simply bullheaded, sour men moping and punching one another. To quote Jim Emerson’s article from 1999 on the film, “To say Fight Club is about fist-fighting is like saying Taxi Driver is about cab driving.” The movie remains maybe the best commentary about the place of middle-class white men in modern America. After centuries of unrivaled rule, the cracks are showing and the paths are getting murkier. Fincher isn’t asking for a melancholic ballad to the eventual – and thankful – turn. He is pointing out the complications of it with nuance, unlike those right-wing hacks yammering on about femi-nazis or some such nonsense.
All of this in addition to the peppering of takedowns about today’s cultural obsession of finding purchased things to define self, a fact that has only grown worse with the current customobility craze, makes for a still great film. I would still lean towards Zodiac as his finest work. I wouldn’t harshly judge anyone still in the soap-centric camp though.