Fight Club

Fight Club photo starrating-4stars.jpgAn everyman, let’s call him “Jack“, is discontent with his life and pretty much with life in general. Jack begins attending support groups for problems from which he doesn’t suffer, in an effort to make his personal existence seem better by comparison. At first it works until the presence of another fraud, Marla Singer, disrupts his healing process. Then he meets Tyler Durden, a soap salesman with a mutual distaste for consumerist culture. The two embark on a journey of doctrine to mutually improve their lives.

At heart Fight Club rests on the relationship between its central trio. Edward Norton capably embodies the loser emboldened by fighting. He is at once pathetic, but mesmerizing. His all consuming quest to lift himself out of the mire of his life, is captivating. As the film progresses, he becomes more and more debilitating in outward appearance, while manifesting a more confident attitude. Brad Pitt is the guy through which Jack finds strength, His worldview is nihilistic, rejecting everything of value. Yet, Tyler’s ability to inspire his mental turnaround through fist fights is completely believable. Helena Bonham Carter is Marla the girlfriend that comes between them. Marla is a rather unpleasant woman whose personal style can best be described as heroin chic. After starring in the stately costume drama, The Wings of the Dove, just 2 years prior, the casting choice was surprising at the time. She is memorable, although I can’t say I was particularly taken with her character. She is nevertheless an important construct which heavily influences Jack’s behavior.

Jack’s friendship with Tyler is predicated on the desire to eliminate an emasculation he feels in his own life. The opportunity to engage in fisticuffs with willing strangers as a means to feel powerful is the origin of the fight club. As their social organization takes off, there is a giddy wallowing in nihilism that could easily be taken as the glorification of violence. But look closer. Things do not improve for dear Jack. He moves in with Tyler Durden who lives in an absolute hovel of a building that seemingly grows more filthy. Similarly his physical well being actually deteriorates over time.

Highly controversial upon its release, Fight Club is sort of a spiritual cousin to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Like that picture, Fight Club is based in a novel. When the movie was originally released in the Fall of 1999 it sparked a debate amongst critics who gave positive and negative reviews in equal measure. Audiences weren’t really sure what to make of it either. A financial disappointment, only grossing $37 million against a cost of $63 million. Indeed it remains director David Fincher’s least attended production after Zodiac. However time has softened the story’s dark subtext. Critical and popular opinion has grown decidedly positive during the last decade.

Fight Club is one of those in-your-face, take-no-prisoners manifestos that has something say and does it with style and panache. The cinematography is visually arresting. His initial dehumanization at the start of the drama is borne out of the melancholy that happiness has not followed from material possessions. The script has a point of view and doesn’t kowtow to delicate sensibilities. It’s easy to take the idea of hand to hand combat as an endorsement to violence. I won’t spoil specific plot developments, but the success of their fight club cannot be viewed as a mandate to brawl. Despite being the protagonist, Jack is not someone to be admired. Yes, his anguish is abated at first but it leads to anarchy. The fight club becomes more successful and increasingly violent. I’ll admit the milieu is depressing. All the muck and brutality can get a bit oppressive. While the script never really presents a viable solution to Jack‘s dissatisfaction with life, it presents an interesting concept that gives the viewer something to think about. You are not the contents of your wallet.

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20 Responses to “Fight Club”

  1. It’s almost unbelievable that Fight Club only grossed $37 million (domestically) given its pop culture status. I saw the film at the theatre and enjoyed the plot with its various twists and turns. Like you said, I never thought of this as a story about fighting. To me, it was all about the desire for validation and establishment of identity. I believe it was done well enough that it will continue to find new audiences.

    • I’m still fascinated by how public opinion of films can change over time. Financial flop in 1999 now sits in the imdb.com Top 10. I actually saw this as part of my local theater’s classics series which also presented To Kill a Mockingbird and Vertigo. What a difference a decade makes!

  2. Nice review. I really feel I should watch Fight Club again. When I first saw this, I thought it was great, but then felt that it was overhyped by so many.

  3. SPOILERS AHEAD

    Sad that this movie failed at the US box office, especially when it’s satirizing Americans with annoying first world problems. I just love the movie to death, and watching it recently was even better after reading the book. I wanted my family to watch it with me, just for the sake of discussion, and it just didn’t work with them. They were confused (instead of mesmerized/curious) about the connection between “Jack” (ha what if that was his real name all along!) and Tyler Durden and they couldn’t stand the violence. I’d like to think that my father was imagining himself as Jack in the scene where Jack beats himself up before his boss, because he laughed at it, but I’m not sure whether he was nervous or he finally got the satire.

    Anyway. I have to say I don’t agree with your comparative assessment of A Clockwork Orange completely. They both use violence for satire, but they probably aren’t alone. A Clockwork Orange had an unreliable narrator, and he’s motivated a lot differently than the Everyman. Plus the violence is rape and torture vs. fist fighting. Look at the directors. Fincher’s not exactly a great director, but he’s equal parts straightforward and genius. Kubrick does what he wants, so he CAN be straightforward and he’s ALWAYS genius. He might be THE great director (it’s practically proven by his oeuvre and A Life in Pictures), while there wasn’t. Singly movie of his that avoided controversy. I get what you mean when you say Fight Club had a box office disappointment, but it made money worldwide pretty easily. Clockwork, no. It was banned in so many countries, and Kubrick left the UK because half the people who had seen it were giving him death threats and nobody was really supporting him. Tough to compare a guy who does that (three years after making a movie with 240-some walkouts on the premiere), to Fincher.

    Still I’m rambling on one point. Great review…even if you’ve broken two of the six rules already. (Did you wear shirt and shoes while writing? Did you write this with one person and only one person? Were you obligated to write this review? I’m forgetting one rule…)

    • It might be sad that Fight Club failed at the box office if that’s where the story ended. It became such a widely respected critical darling that it more than made up for that temporary failure.

      Hmmm, I don’t recall making a “comparative assessment” between Fight Club and A Clockwork Orange. I merely pointed out they were both highly controversial and based on a novel. It’s funny that you mention the unreliable narrator however. You can’t get more unreliable than Jack in Fight Club so I think you inadvertently strengthened the case you weren’t trying to make.

      I disagree with your assertion that David Fincher isn’t a great director. I think he’s one of the most talented working today.

      P.S. Oh and there were EIGHT rules of fight club. 😉

      • Oh right…that “Jack” is just…well, he doesn’t even tell us his name, he’s obsessed with Marla and makes it her fault, and damn, all those therapies he doesn’t need. Unreliable all right.

        I didn’t know you’d stopped there though, at the comparison between A Clockwork Orange and Fight Club.

        If I said he’s not a great director, I meant he hasn’t quite established himself as someone LIKE Stanley Kubrick, whose career spanned the entire latter half of the twentieth century in a way that seems he was put on earth for movies. (I was really hurried on my last comment.) I do think that Fincher has an outstanding artistic mind, especially when he hasn’t used a single screenplay of his own.

        Eight? Oh. There were six in the book I believe. Speaking of which. Do you have Fight Club on Blu-ray? It’s so much fun going through the deleted scenes one by one; most are alternate scenes side by side with the originals. Watch how Helena Bonham Carter delivers Chuck Palahniuk’s controversial line (“I want to have your abortion”), and then Fincher’s line (“I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school”)–the latter being an intent to AVOID controversy, apparently.

  4. Great review. It pains me that this flopped, but I’m glad that it’s achieved worldwide cult status. It’s one of my favorite films. Truly something special.

  5. I’m glad I saw this again. I’ll be honest, I liked it the first time but didn’t understand it all. This time around I got it. Made more sense and I liked it even more. 4 stars.

  6. Personally, I love Fight Club as a film. I’m surprised that it ranks down with Zodiac, since I found that to be rather boring. I think it’s fascinating that opinion is so divided on Fight Club though. It does tackle some weighty themes especially about consumer culture and trying to break your life out of a rut. I think I appreciate it for being so unapologetic and not kowtowing to anyone despite its subject matter. I would say that it doesn’t provide a viable solution to Jack’s discontent, although there is an anarchist resolution none the less: tear it all down.

  7. martin250 Says:

    i enjoyed the extensive review.

    but after being a part of the audience that “weren’t really sure what to make of it ..” for quite some time, i have to say that i don’t like this film.

    the reason( and maybe the reason for its box office failure) is this: It admires its villain(Tyler) Too Much and Too seriously.

    There’s too much of Tylers preaching and antisocial ways.

    ok, we get it:
    ‘we are not the content of the wallets’,
    ‘the things we own end up owning us. ‘

    Great reminders.

    But that was already taught at the early part when Tyler and “Jack”, were at the pub drinking.

    Then the Club starts, and Tyler’s quotes start to take a back seat, and what comes forward to the screen is simply violence, violence, violence. a guilty pleasure for willing audiences to sit back and cheer and come into touch with their primitive side.

    The style however is great , terrific. that opening film work backing up from inside Jacks brain all the way to the exterior is very creative. And perhaps the first events of the film, before Jack meets Tyler brings promise.

    But there’s too much doctrine that eventually fizzles out; its meaning or effect weakens as the film progresses because of the violent events.

    On a constructive side, i wonder how this film would have worked, if a cop was involved as another protagonist.-A good guy to investigate Jacks crimes. That way it becomes a good mix of Cop thriller and Tylers attempts at creating trouble.

    • I get why it’s a such a polarizing film. The script is a bit muddled as to whether it’s glorying or condemning these people. But ultimately I think “Jack” realizes his mistakes at the end – so there is some redemption in the character at that point.

  8. Its been a few years since now since I saw Fight Club, a film that I found intriguing at the time but sadly didn’t bowl me over like it did some. I will revisit it soon and reassess my initial judgement to see if the years of film analysis and movie fanaticism have altered my initial underwhelmed reaction. Great review as always mark. Drop by Movie Review World sometime if you get the chance

    • I think time is Fight Club’s friend. What might’ve seemed like an assault in 1999 has softened with time.

      Regardless I think its appeal lies more with style and visuals than in the intellectual comment it makes on consumerist culture.

  9. Great review. And a refreshing one as well. Most of the blogger reviews I’ve read of this film say that it is the best film ever. Which is cool, fair enough, but it was nice to read a balanced, articulate analysis of it.

    • Thank you and I know what you‘re talking about. There seems to be a general tendency to overpraise movies in the blogosphere. While Fight Club is an important film, it’s not the greatest one ever made.

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