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A decade after its release, David Fincher’s cult classic Fight Club still invites strong discussion among critics, moviegoers and cultural pundits. Released in 1999, the film chronicles the story of Edward Norton’s insomniac white collar worker as he gets drawn to the ultra-violence, uber-masculinity and outright nihilism promoted and practiced by Tyler Durden, played with iconic swagger by Brad Pitt.
Few recent films have elicited as much strongly opposing opinions as Fight Club has, with various camps proclaiming it as a post-modern masterpiece that documents the brutal emasculation of the human male by a modern consumerist culture and the ways a man can fight back.
Others condemn it is a faux-intellectual and hypocritical attempt by the Hollywood machinery to appeal to men’s baser impulses while tacking on a moralist lesson at the end.
Make no mistake, Fight Club attempts to raise a mirror at society’s face and invites careful interpretation.
It is above all, a message film. One that aims to say something as much as it wants to entertain. From this vantage point, it can be argued that the film does not fall easily within either the interpretations mentioned above. Fortunately – and frustratingly – the film is an ambiguous exercise. It offers very few clean thematic elements from which an easily digestible interpretation can be gleamed from.
The film’s narrator is a dead-eyed cog at a dead-end job for a car manufacturer.
He lives in a condo spare of personality and filled with IKEA furniture. He is empty of feeling, seemingly overwhelmed by the demands of an outside world to buy more, consume more in order to be more. It is therefore no surprise that he’s also an insomniac. To cure this, he goes to nightly meetings of various support groups for serious ailments. For a while this seems to work, as he himself notes, ‘Every evening I died, and every evening I was born again, resurrected.” These early scenes clearly illustrate a man lost in the wilderness of modern society, one who has to co-opt other people’s real pain so he can feel something for himself. Without pain, he is dead; with it he feels alive.
His attempts at relative normalcy are disrupted by two major events. The first one involves meeting Marla Singer, another poser at group meetings who becomes the only major female presence in the film. The second event is the first half’s most important one – the narrator meets the brash soap maker Tyler Durden. They strike an uneasy friendship and business relationship making soaps and living together in Durden’s dilapidated house at the outskirts of town.
For the rest of the first half, the film focuses on the establishment of the titular fight club – one that sprang from a drunken brawl where Durden asks the narrator to hit him. Pretty soon, underground fight clubs are established all over the country, filled with lost men who voluntarily subjected themselves to fighting and physical harm. With Tyler as their leader, and the narrator as the second-in-command, these men and saw the possibility of regaining their masculinity taken away from them by their nine-to-five jobs, family responsibilities and societal pressures to be successful. Rebel against modern society’s emasculation, the film seems to say.
It is with the events of the second half that things get even more manic, as Durden orders a series of attacks against corporate America via his Project Mayhem, starting with relatively harmless pranks and culminating in a full-blown act of terrorism which involves blowing up the city’s credit banks. The narrator watches in horror as otherwise reasonable men are converted into a mindless cult bent on following Durden’s every proclamation. He is the audience’s surrogate at this point, one that recognizes that the events in his life are getting out of hand, and knows he must stop it if he is to salvage what’s left of it.
On the surface level, the film is an entertaining, often humorous and violent depiction of masculinity. It employs voiceover narration, flashy camerawork, quick editing and sharp dialog to create a fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat experience that shows a man’s increasingly dark journey to escape his humdrum and meaningless existence only to be caught up with the schemes of a dangerous, messianic terrorist. The story is gripping, the images stylized, and the direction superb. Because of these factors, the movie largely succeeds as a popcorn movie.
It is with its deeper themes, and the decisions the movie makes to attend to these themes, that the ambiguity is most apparent. The film wears its nihilism proudly, and yet it also shows that nihilism has to have its limits. That the fun has consequences. The film explicitly shows an innocent man being killed as a direct result of Project Mayhem’s actions. That is as much a condemnation of the characters and the audiences who might have rooted for them.
It also suggests that modern life, and by extension the modern man, is less and less alive and an individual and more of a long-running commercial for goods that have led us, in the words of Tyler Durden, “chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” But Fight Club is itself, a product. One that’s marketed, distributed and obviously created to sell and gain profits. At worst, this suggests a highly hypocritical intention on the filmmakers’ part. At best, though, it can be seen as a dangerous risk for its makers to bite the hand that feeds it.
No discussion about Fight Club is complete without mentioning its famous twist. By showing the narrator and Tyler Durden as two sides of one broken individual, the film makes a powerful statement about identity and how it can be destroyed by modern life. The film’s final shot shows the narrator ‘resurrected’ as one man, holding Marla Singer’s hand. A woman who, via his Tyler Durden persona, he almost attempted to destroy. This seems to be film’s true and final point, that the cost of nihilism as a means to rebel against modern society’s excesses does not equal the hope that can be found in real human relationships.
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