Fight Club. It’s almost worth asking if there’s even a point to my posting a review of the film. If you’re on the internet, it’s just assumed you’ve seen it. But I hadn’t. It’s far from the only “classic” I haven’t seen, and it’s also far from the only film I didn’t watch when it was new, or at peak popularity. There might not be too many other films in that overlap, though.
The film was released in 1999, directed by David Fincher, and is probably the sole reason an entire generation of people on the internet know how to spell the name of author Chuck Palahniuk. It stars Edward Norton as a disaffected 30-something office worker, who, depending on how you look at it, has no name or several names. He gives out different names to the illness support groups he attends — though he has none of the illnesses and is there because the emotional release helps him sleep — but never gives out his own actual name. He is simply credited as the Narrator, and throughout the film we hear his thoughts filling in details of the events.
Some thoughts are clear from his expression, but he expounds on them anyway.
The Narrator is largely a cipher, drifting aimlessly through life. He has lost direction, swept up in other peoples’ expectations of him. Show up to work, do your job, go home, buy things, use things. He’s suffering from terminal restlessness. He has severe insomnia, kept under control solely by vicariously releasing his emotional frustration in support groups for diseases he doesn’t have. And then he meets Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), in many of those same support groups. She’s clearly faking as much as he is (most blatantly in the support group for testicular cancer), and he can’t stand it. Her lie makes him realize the depth of his own insincerity. He can’t sleep, once again.
And then he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). On a business trip, he encounters this flamboyant, aggressive, extroverted man who dresses like he took a page from every decade of fashion and threw them together. He sells soap. And he has all the self-assurance that the Narrator doesn’t seem to have.
The difference between “bum” and “successful salesman” is apparently chutzpah.
But even Tyler seems to be aware that there’s something not quite right about their lives. There’s something missing, even for someone who lives simply. Purpose. Challenge. Aggression. Tyler, iconoclastic and something of a Social Darwinist, feels that modern society has stifled men. So he and the Narrator start fighting each other, just to feel something. And then they attract an audience, and that audience starts joining in. Fight Club is born. Regular meetings, regular fights. Rules of conduct. You do not talk about Fight Club; of course, even Tyler notes the irony in wanting the club to grow while not being able to talk about it. Rules concerning when the fight ends. And, of course, rules concerning who fights; everybody has to fight the first time they come. And everybody wants to fight. Men from all walks of life; service people, public servants, office workers, mechanics. No matter how traditionally “masculine” their role in life is, they feel the need for something more. Even Bob (Meat Loaf), the Narrator’s friend from the testicular cancer support group, starts coming to Fight Club, finding it a better form of therapy for him.
Mutually assured destruction, agreed upon by all parties
Of course, if all there was to this movie was fighting, there wouldn’t be much to it. It’s a psychological drama more than anything else. As Tyler spins further and further out of control, the Narrator feels Fight Club and his own life start to spin out of control as well. Marla gets caught between the Narrator and Tyler and their irregular friendship, and her own self-destructive tendencies feed into the maelstrom as well. And the members of Fight Club, in seeking to throw off some of the conformity of their lives find an entirely new conformity in the cult of personality that is Tyler Durden. It’s a very well-crafted film, with the story structure building, ever so slowly, to the inevitable conclusion. And the principal actors all turn in pitch-perfect performances. Each embodies their role so well that even though Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter are all very famous faces, the audience sees only Tyler, the Narrator, and Marla. And director David Fincher uses several cinematographic tricks to add to the mental impression the film gives of someone headed along a spiral of self-destruction, with deliberately-glitched frames randomly thrown in.
Yet for all of its master craftsmanship, I personally found there was something a little missing for me, where it didn’t quite live up to the hype. I think what it is, is that I came to it far too late.
Part of it is that this is a film where there is one pivotal scene that changes the nature of the film. And while you would think a movie which repeatedly tells people “You do not talk about Fight Club” would have people respect the sanctity of pivotal spoilers, the internet is full of assholes, many of whom will purposefully blurt out the spoiler even before you’re aware they’re going to be talking about Fight Club at all. I won’t spoil it here — thus proving empirically that yes, it is possible to avoid it — though it may come up in the comments section (since that’s easy for people to avoid, I don’t think it’s out of bounds to discuss it there). Knowing the twist doesn’t ruin the movie, of course. It just means you’re no longer watching it the same way. Like The Matrix or The Usual Suspects, you’re now aware of what’s going on, and are looking for the clues. It is, in a way, not the same movie. And because I knew the twist going into it, I have never seen the Fight Club that the first-time viewers saw. I got one very good viewing experience, but had it been possible to avoid the spoilers, I could have had two. Still, I can’t really hold it against the film if some people choose to spoil things without warning.
Still, that’s not the only way in which I came to it too late. Even though I’m 33, about the same age as Tyler and the Narrator seem to be, I feel like I’m a little too old for this film now. Had I seen this when it was new, I probably would have absolutely loved it. In 1999, I was 20 years old, in my second year of college, and had just figured out that the system was not exactly stacked in my favor. I had a meaningless, almost pay-less retail job I hated (in fact, looking it up, I quit that job almost the exact day Fight Club came out.) The first presidential election I was going to be eligible to vote for was coming up the next year, and it was already apparent that my choice was going to be between two men I could not bring myself to support in the slightest. My basic mood was often “mad at the world”. Had I watched Fight Club at that time, I have little doubt that Tyler Durden would have had a lot of appeal to me. But that’s 13 years gone. My current situation may have a lot of superficial resemblances on the outside, but I’m not as prone to being upset about it. I’ve been cynical so long that I’ve even gotten cynical about cynicism; seeing only the bad doesn’t fix things any more than seeing only the good. I’ve become a stoic more than anything else, and a stoic doesn’t provide the audience that Tyler Durden was looking for. Like the Narrator in the end, I see where Tyler’s reasoning is valid, but his conclusions on what to do about it are flawed at best.
But it’s still a very well-crafted film, and the characters still have a lot of appeal. It’s just that Fight Club is going to speak to some people more than others, and it’s going to depend a lot, I think, on when in their lives they see it. See it too late, and it won’t speak quite as strongly.