out of ****
Fincher’s Fight Club is a movie that people will
give either four stars or zero stars, with probably little room
in between. It is a film so brutal, so unapologetic, so raw, so
unflinching, so repulsive, so graphic, so grotesque, so pessimistic,
so sexually explicit, so sadistic, so chauvinist, and so slickly
produced that most people will be tricked into believing that
it is a poignant film about something terribly important. I for
one was not tricked. For me, Fight Club was like the
“friend” who everyone loves for reasons no one can
figure out. When he shows up at your house party, he is dressed
sharp, his hair is neatly combed, and he is a smooth talker, so
everyone automatically suspects that he is an important chap.
Thus, they don’t notice that his jokes are all bad (though
well told), his comments are demeaning, and his attitude is sour.
After he leaves, everyone remembers having had a good time with
him, but they can’t remember why.
film concerns an unnamed insomniac (Edward Norton) whose monotonous
job and life lead him to an unhealthy relationship with three
different persons of varying emotional stability. The first is
Bob (Meat Loaf), a testicular cancer patient who cries a lot and
thinks that Norton is a fellow “survivor.” This might
have something to do with the fact that Norton attends cancer-patient
meetings for his own moral support, though he is perfectly healthy.
These scenes are treated with humor, though I for one don’t
find a sickly cancer patient lamenting that she can’t have
sex anymore particularly amusing. In any case, the second important
person in the Narrator’s life is Marla (Helena Bonham Carter),
a neurotic, punkish chain-smoker who also dishonestly attends
the meetings and has to deal with the Narrator’s insistence
that she is imposing on his space. The third, and most important,
figure is Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a freelance, polyester-wearing
soap salesman who lives in a rundown house (think Midnight
Cowboy) and mutters anarchic lines of shocking redundancy.
is with Durden that the Narrator strikes a true cord. When Norton’s
apartment is blown up in a freak “accident,” he moves
in with the flamboyant salesman. From here, the two strike up
a puzzling relationship that I would not call a friendship; it
is more like an alliance, in which the Narrator looks on in awe
and respect as Durden teaches him the ways of the world. These
“ways” includes animal-like, demeaning sexual behavior
with Marla, as well as manipulation, intimidation, and the invention
of a fighting club in which Durden and the Narrator are the leaders.
This club, sort of like an embryonic Ultimate Fighting Championship,
takes place in the basement of a bar, and it involves two men
entering into a ring in which they beat each other to a pulp.
It eventually attracts many other men who want to develop their
masculinity and prove their machismo by taking bloody hits to
the face and breaking each other’s limbs, and among their
number is poor, weepy-eyed Bob. At first, the Narrator plays along,
but soon the club gains countless members and turns into a dictatorship
that Durden uses to commit fascist-like terrorist acts. Before
the Narrator knows what has happened, he realizes that he’s
facing something more than he bargained for.
all the sex, violence, and vulgarity, Fincher keeps the tone light,
so that Fight Club plays more like a dark comedy than
a social commentary or a dark thriller. As the slaughter and mayhem
build, we are shown scenes of brutality and cruelty, and they
are handled with such flippancy that it is downright unsettling.
Call me old fashioned, but I do not think that it is very funny
to watch a helpless victim try to fight off dozens of large men
who want to cut off his testicles. Or to see a man who just shot
his throat out with a six-shooter try to reason with his girlfriend
as buildings explode in the background. Or to laugh at jokes made
about losing one’s virginity in grade school. Or to chuckle
at a theater projectionist’s practical joke of inserting
the image of a penis into a movie reel, traumatizing little girls
in the audience. There is nothing wrong with using scenes this
graphic in nature if they are a means to a larger, more poignant
end (except maybe that last one), but in Fight Club,
everything else is a means to an end for the gruesome display
of depravity. By placing a humorous tone over these sickening
images, perhaps Fincher believes he is making a social commentary
in which he is telling people, as the DVD box put it, to “grow
the hell up.” I could ask the same of the filmmakers themselves.
is disturbing the way that Fight Club has developed into
such a cult classic, but I suppose it was inevitable. Its violence
and machismo (or is that masochism?) seems to have tapped into
some sort of hidden rage in the male brain. Like Tyler Durden’s
brainwashing fight club, the movie has legions of fans who defend
it to the end, sighting its profoundness and enlightenment. How
many people have I heard insist, “Fight Club opened
my mind!”? My question is, what has it opened their mind
to? What is the film trying to say? There are plenty of long-winded
speeches in the film, to be sure, but if you listen to them carefully
you will realize that they all boil down to Tyler Durden’s
more to-the-point statement, “It is only when we have nothing
that we are free to do everything!” This is his philosophy
for embracing the fascist, terrorist activities that he organizes.
Is the film supporting his position? Of course not, but then we
must question why all the pointless speeches are there, except
to further enhance the illusion that Fight Club is “profound.”
In contrast, the film also shakes its fist at the Narrator for
embracing material possessions. Perhaps there is an equilibrium
between Durden and the Narrator’s conflicting perspectives
that must be reached, but Fight Club does not reach it.
It is more interested in focusing on sick, demented characters
doing terrible things to each other to try to work a meaning into
it all. By presenting both sides of human wickedness and taking
no sides, Fight Club essentially develops into a movie
about, well, nothing.
film boils down to a defenseless depravity that has somehow fooled
many a good people into believing that it is “deep.”
Its success hinges on its ability to shock you, but it takes you
through these horrible acts of senseless human violence with seemingly
no payoff. Yes, it is well-directed. Yes, it is well-written.
Yes, its cinematography is a feast for the eyes. Yes, Edward Norton,
Brad Pitt, Meat Loaf, and Helena Bonham Carter are very talented
actors. But we are forced to ask an important, poignant question
that towers over the film like a dark shadow: Who wants to watch
a movie about violence, gore, depression, and evil when there
is simply nothing else to it but these elements? These topics
can make for wonderful, profound cinematic experiences when they
are actually about something—see my glowing reviews for
The Exorcist and George Romero’s Dawn
of the Dead. The problem with Fight Club is
that it only pretends to be about something, and the film uses
its devices to give a false sense of profoundness. The audience
is fooled because they are numbed.
me give an example: There is a third-act twist that is likely
to shock most viewers into believing that it is a profound revelation.
I say that it is a blatant cop-out—a twist that has no relation
to what we have seen in the rest of the movie that has been thrown
at us to give the viewer a left curve. In the end, it is the only
logical direction that the story could have taken to maintain
the guise of being “brilliant.” If the movie continued
on its dark, demented track, it would have brought us to a gory,
obvious showdown in which the audience would be forced to realize
that Fight Club isn’t about anything but its own
senselessness. By throwing this left curve, the audience forgets
the direction that the film was going and is instead flabbergasted
at this new revelation. If you stop and think about it, you will
realize that the twist has little to do with what has been happening
on screen. Oh, there has been buildup for it, but not in the theme
department. It simply exists to make the audience think, “Wow!
That was amazing!”, and to convince them that they are experiencing
a movie of sheer poignancy. The audience has been unfairly manipulated
by filmmakers, who are desperately trying to succeed in making
their film seem more enlightened than it is.
is one thing to be a film like Zombie
or Friday the 13th, which do not pretend to be anything
better than what they are: Pointless gore-fests. Violence, gore,
and sexuality can be used to tell profound stories that try to
make statements, such as The Exorcist and Last Tango
in Paris. Fight Club’s sin
is that it has more in common with the former, and it is disguised
as the latter. People who praise it have to sidestep the issue
that the ideas that the film explores, such as consumerism, selfishness,
and desensitization, are so obvious and overused that the audiences
does not need to be convinced that they are bad, at least not
by this film’s extreme method. What’s left is a film
of such supreme violence that it is closer to pornography than
art. Have we become so bitter in our post-postmodernist era that
anything with shocking content becomes important, regardless of
whether or not it has a point?
the answer is to that question, I am forced to ask another: Where’s
George Romero when you need him?
Edward Norton: The Narrator
Brad Pitt: Tyler Durden
Helena Bonham Carter: Marla
Meat Loaf: Bob Paulson
Fox 2000 Pictures presents
a film by Art Linson Production. Directed by David Fincher. Written
by Jim Uhls, from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk. Rated R, for graphic
displays of violence, language, sexuality. Running time: 139 minutes.
Original United States theatrical release date: October 15, 1999.