Fight Club (1999)

UPDATE 2010: Looking back at my original review for Fight Club, I find my feelings haven’t changed about it… except in one significant way. The conclusion of the film is much, much more disheartening. It portrays a calamity that, at the time of the film’s release, seemed over-the-top and incredibly bleak. Apocalyptic, even. Well, a couple of years after the film came out, we came to know calamity just like that. And so, what was once a sort of absurd comedy is now a very real scar on the American psyche. The film feels, in retrospect, prophetic. I admire it more. But I’ll probably watch it less.

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Caution: This review includes discussion of key plot points, including the ending of the film. If you don’t want spoilers, steer clear.

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David Fincher’s subversive comedy Fight Club will scare a lot of moviegoers.

Its characters unleash incredible violence, indulge in meaningless and manipulative sex, and deliver nihilistic speeches, and Fincher draws us into author Chuck Palahniuk’s world by strapping us to a cinematic runaway train. It’s a volatile combination that could provoke an angry backlash. In the future, we’ll probably see all manner of society’s ills blamed on this movie, just as others have blamed society’s corruption on Oliver Stone for Natural Born Killers. Give the film a few weeks, and we’ll be hearing about real “fight clubs” starting up somewhere. Some seem to think that a movie exposing the problems with our culture are actually the cause of those problems. And some are dumb enough to witness the characters’ folly and think, “Hey, that looks like fun!”

A lot of comedies are called “subversive” these days, and it seems to have become the equivalent of “cool.” But some films are subversive in that they seek merely to ruin something, where others subvert to expose the truth about something… which can be very constructive. Fight Club is subversive in the best sense of the word. It portrays alarming attitudes and destructive perspectives so vividly that the watchful will see the fault lines in the characters’ thinking. This isn’t the glorification of nihilism, but a thorough critique of it.

Most audiences are unfamiliar with irony and satire as sharp as this, so few will appreciate this film’s greatest strengths. Fight Club is about what happens when people respond against a dehumanizing culture by reacting violently. Ultimately, the rebellion creates its own dehumanizing culture, and anything meaningful they might be fighting for is only further trampled in the experience. It’s like a cynical response to Star Wars: The rebels strike at the Empire, and become a lesser empire that’s doomed to implode. It could be a parable about political revolution, social uprisings, or religious schism.

Our antihero — we’ll call him “Jack,” one of his many names — is a man who finds himself torn in two. On one hand, he’s inspired by a rebel named Tyler Durden who wants to respond to society’s ills with a violent wake-up call. On the other hand, Jack knows that Tyler’s ways are not headed for a happy ending. While I don’t think Fincher or Palahniuk come up with a sufficient answer to society’s ills, they do a powerful job of exploring one of the wrong answers and showing it for the lie that it is. Isn’t rebelling against materialism and hypocrisy a good thing? Not if the only way to do so is to leave chaos and destruction in your wake.

There are a lot of similarities between Fincher’s Fight Club and Sam Mendes’s acclaimed new film American Beauty. They’re both about a man who, fed up with American Culture at the end of the millennium, decides to rebel at all costs, no matter what anyone thinks. Both characters are sick of the corporate, shirt-and-tie rat race. Both are fed up with materialism (which Fight Club calls “the IKEA nesting instinct.”) Both hate the hypocrisy of those who sell the American dream. And so both try to quit caring what other people think of them, to follow their own dreams at any cost.

American Beauty celebrates — yea, revels in — the rebellious sarcasm and destructive reactions of Lester Birnam. Lester tramples on the feelings of the poor saps all around him on his way to self-actualization, and we are encouraged to laugh and cheer him on. Only at the very last minute does Lester stop to think about the fact that there might be a better answer, one of kindness and respect rather than selfishness. For me, after all of the movie’s self-indulgence, that was too little, too late.

Fight Club is wiser than that. Jack lets the audience in on his aching conscience throughout the movie. He can see the monster he is becoming. As much as he admires the rebellion led by the ultimate tough-guy Tyler, he sees that while he’s escaping materialism, he’s also losing his only hope for a meaningful relationship or a meaningful life.

Edward Norton plays Jack perfectly. In search of meaningful conversations and relationships, as well as an emotional outlet, he discovers a new night life visiting all manner of late-night support groups. He embraces cancer victims, for example, and weeps even though he isn’t dying of cancer. In those circles, people take him seriously because they believe he’s dying. And he finds people willing to speak their minds. It works for him. He feels better. For a while. Then another “faker” shows up, a spaced-out chain-smoking girl named Marla (Helena Bonham Carter, looking like she just finished auditioning for Blade Runner 2.) Forced to face his own hypocrisy, Jack decides he needs a different outlet.

Along comes Tyler Durden, who is immediately one of the most iconic rebels in Hollywood history. Tyler introduces Jack to another sort of support group. “Fight Club,” Tyler says, is the beginning of recovery for men who were never taught to become men because they never had committed fathers. Tyler’s view is this: For men raised only by their messed up mothers, the American Dream of marriage and family won’t help. “I don’t think another woman is the answer,” he scoffs.

At Fight Club, men duke it out to unleash their anger and frustration, until they lie panting and deliriously happy, bathed in their own blood. The pain wakes them up from their catatonic lives. Jack finds this to be a great release, only half-listening to Tyler’s philosophical reasons for starting the group.

Tyler’s philosophy, however awkward and preachy, might be an appealing lie to the youth of America, because there is a lot of truth to it. We are a generation of children without fathers. Because a person’s concept of God often has a lot to do with his or her relationship with parents, he or she easily concludes that God is hateful and has abandoned His children. So, instead of going quietly, acquiescing to the “program” of the corporate ladder, these overgrown boys become rebels, nihilists, spitting in God’s face, because they want to be noticed. They want to get Daddy’s attention. And who cares if they have to lash out at Him to do it? They’re going to suffer His wrath no matter what, right?

Now, some will come to believe that Tyler Durden’s message is the movie’s message. (MovieGuide’s Ted Baehr has already announced that Fight Club is full of “disturbed material” instead of disturbed characters.) Jack is our anchor. He is our conscience. And he questions Tyler all along, even though he goes along with it. Just as Jack enjoys rebelling and breaking free, he can see that this unleashed anger is going to rise until it’s out of control, until people start getting killed.

The rest of the movie is about Jack’s relationship with Tyler Durden and how, by accepting Tyler’s challenge to live outside the law, he is going to lose everything that he holds dear. When Marla finds out about Tyler and a love triangle develops, it’s only a matter of time before enmity arises between Tyler and Jack. And that’s when Fight Club gets really really interesting. (‘Tis the season for wild surprise endings. Blame it on Keyser Soze.)

Ironically, Tyler’s club, which evolves into a violent and muscular militia, begins adhering to rules even stricter and more dehumanizing than the culture outside. I couldn’t help but think of the fourth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, in which the apostle says that the corrupt culture “having become callous (ignorant of pain), have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.” In Ephesians, the answer is not in “anger, clamor, wrath, and slander,” but in being “kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other…” Jack finds out the hard way that by following Tyler’s violent plan, there is no room for any sort of kindness or friendship, even among “friends.” When you sacrifice order and meaning, you sacrifice all the good things you so desperately need.

Fight Club is a political cartoon of a movie. The biggest surprise to me was how funny it is… big laughs every few minutes, thanks to the chemistry of Pitt and Norton, and the over-the-top spectacle of Helena Bonham Carter. Pitt gives his very best performance, a fusion of his wisecracking freak from Twelve Monkeys and his cocky kid from A River Runs Through It. He’s all over the screen. He’s the energy that makes this two-and-a-half hours so viscerally engaging.

Norton strikes a perfect balance with Pitt, demonstrating just enough sense to provoke the audience toward thoughtfulness, yet never becoming preachy. Norton’s narration may be the most effective narration I’ve ever encountered in a film. The movie finds its voice in him. He’s brilliant.

Like GoodFellas, Fight Club powerfully explores the disastrous result of depending on power and anger to achieve one’s ends. It makes startling observations of how parents set the tone for their childrens’ views of God. Unfortunately, it seems uninterested in the religious implications of its narrative. Some engagement with those questions could have made the film so much richer. The movie never stops to ask whether there is any higher power that might offer something better than tyranny and cruelty. As a result, there’s no good answer to the oppression that troubles Jack in the first place.

So Jack is left reaching for the only shred of grace he can find — an unstable, unlikely love affair. But that gets drowned out in the the sound and fury of the film’s rather bewildering finale. The movie seems to end up saying that even if we do recover our wits in time and reach for love instead of rebellion, it’s already too late… we’ve ruined the world.

While this is a bit disappointing, I came away astonished at how much there was to enjoy and appreciate about this film. Fincher’s last outing — the dark and violent Seven — depicted a world so dark and hopeless that I staggered out of the theater feeling sick to my stomach. Here, I was entertained by great performances and an intensely clever script, I wanted to sit and discuss it for hours with others from the audience, and I felt I had been given new insight into the illnesses of my own generation. For that, I have to give Fight Club high marks.

Audiences will almost certainly be excited about this movie for the wrong reasons. Tyler’s lie will be attractive to some, and we’ll probably see some terrorist act or some crime subculture pop up only to discover a copy of a Fight Club video in their closet. It’s always a risk to try and expose evil for the sake of good; somebody out there will come away more interested in the evil than the good.

Like Jesus said, “Those who have eyes to see, let them see. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.


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