By John H. Foote
11. FIGHT CLUB (1999)
“There is one rule about fight club. You do not talk about the fight club. The second rule is YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT FIGHT CLUB.”
– Tyler Durdan (Brad Pitt) in Fight Club (1999)
So says Tyler Durden in laying out the rules for the strange cultish club of men who go down into a basement and proceed to wail the hell out of each other with bare fists. It starts in a parking lot when an unnamed insurance adjuster portrayed by Edward Norton is invited to hit his new friend Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) as hard as he can. Blow for blow they go at it in this empty parking lot outside a rundown bar, each landing powerful punches that open the other up, crack bones in the hands, and generally make a mess of each other.
What is Fight Club actually about? Big question. Let’s just say consumerism, modernity, masculinity, human perfection and, more importantly, imperfection, and death. All of those themes are merged into the screenplay and narrative to give us the bizarre story we are shown to experience. Like Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), it speaks of a society existing today, 20 years from now, and very likely 80 years from now, one of those films that will be analyzed and discussed long after we are gone. And yes … it is that great a film, undeniably brilliant. Like Kubrick’s film, Fight Club still feels new, relevant, as important than as it always was.
HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD … if after 22 years you have not seen Fight Club, first of all shame on you, second, do not read on.
First seen as being pro-violence, the film is anything but, yet audiences in 1999 and the critics chose to look upon the film with shallow attitudes, when in fact it requires a close eye and deserves to be explored and studied for the depth within. There is nothing simplistic about Fight Club, there never was. Made two years before the twin towers of New York were brought down during 9/11, the actions of the anti-hero in the film, Tyler Durden, do not seem so far misplaced from Osama Bin Laden, yet they are. Bin Laden sought to destroy and kill, to make a statement about America, whereas Tyler seeks to raze all of America and build her back. Bring the country back to being something to be proud of. Take away capitalism, erase the consumerism dominating present day America, and start fresh, which many people missed in every way believing the film was celebrating anarchy.
Watch it and pay attention, very careful attention.
If you do not catch the split-second images of Tyler early in the film, before his introduction in the film, you are not watching close enough. Director David Fincher makes demands on his audiences with all his films, but never so great as the demands in Fight Club. Yes, it is a tough watch, but well worth the difficult ride it offers. As Arthur Miller wrote in Death of a Salesman of his sad character Willy Loman, “Attention! Attention must be paid!!”
Angered and frustrated by his seeming need and reliance on consumer possessions and need to buy “stuff”, our hero and unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) begins to rebel against what the social mores are telling him to do. He moves like he is sleepwalking through his life, attending cancer victim group talks, anything to give him something to help him feel. At one of the meetings he encounters a strange young woman, equally dark like him, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), and they establish a friendship. Sort of. Maybe. He refers to her as a cancer, so I am not sure how good a friend he would consider himself. He does know she is cheating in attending these cancer victim meetings, just as he is, and calls her on it, as she does him. His job in insurance business wears him down, and he is screaming silently for an out. He gets it when he meets a free-spirited young man named Tyler who takes him under his wing and coaches him on how he leads his life. When our narrator’s apartment burns up under very mysterious circumstances, Tyler invites him to live in his house, a condemned old building, massive but literally falling apart. Tyler comes to meet Marla and they are soon noisily and very boisterously having sex for all to hear as our boy slips into the world of Tyler. Losing his job, through blackmailing his boss, he suddenly has all the time Tyler needs him to have to take him into his world in every way. Tyler teaches him how to make soap from the body fat of human beings, even inviting him “to finish her off” one night when he emerges from his bedroom, Marla behind waiting for more sex. There is apparently nothing Tyler does not share with his friend.
And then fight club takes off. After being asked to hit Tyler as hard as he can one night, their little club explodes into a large group gathering more than the original once a week. Grown men come to the club and hammer the hell out of each other, beating faces to a pulp. And yet smiling laughing by the end of it. It is punishing and sadistic yet again, exactly what our narrator needs. But the deeper he goes with Tyler, the more dangerous his life becomes. While showing our hero how to make soap, they first have to steal human fat from medical waste dumpsters, and then Tyler burns our boy with lye, spitting on his arm first then giving him a severe medical burn with the dangerous lye. Eventually, but after agonizing pain, he allows it to be neutralized with vinegar, but not before hurting and forever scarring him. Gradually he becomes aware Tyler is fascinated with making explosives and it might have been him to bomb his building, because Tyler is planning a little light show of his own, planning to take down some skyscrapers in the city to make a point.
As our boy decides to figure out all he can about Tyler, what he learns disturbs him.
(HUGE, LIFE ALTERING SPOILER)
Our narrator, portrayed by Edward Norton IS Tyler portrayed by Brad Pitt.
Now in truth I had figured this out while watching the film for the first time at a press screening, but more than one critic grabbed their head in stunned disbelief at this shocking turn of events. Our narrator is Tyler.
When you think back to the scenes inside the house with Marla, it works. The two men are never seen together with her, and only seen together when no one is around. Except at fight club. So now he and Marla have to stop Tyler from bringing down these buildings but are they too late?
This astonishing film about anarchy and the potential madness in it was extraordinary in 1999 and has grown in prestige through the years. It now plays as a cautionary tale in many ways, especially after the Trump years, and in many ways fees even more dangerous than it did 22 years ago.
Edward Norton was extraordinary as the narrator, a humble little schnook working his dead end job, buying what he thinks is cool in his apartment from a mail order catalogue, unable to sleep, without knowing why. He is sleep walking through his life until he meets his exact opposite, Tyler. After his Oscar nominated performance as a neo-Nazi in American History X (1998), Norton was at the peak of his career with his pick of roles. He lost his ripped physique for Fight Club, wanting to portray the narrator because he felt it more of a challenge for him after his neo-Nazi. And they are truly exact opposites.
Brad Pitt is a revelation as Tyler, seemingly eating and drinking pure testosterone throughout the film, the ultimate macho man but an anarchist which is a deadly mix. No longer thought of as just a pretty boy, with golden boy good looks, Pitt had by now proven himself a very good actor and would continue to push the boundaries of his art. Twenty years after stunning audiences in Fight Club he finally won his Oscar for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) for director Quentin Tarantino. Pitt’s Tyler follows no rules because he has evolved, in his mind beyond the rules society has set down. But that makes him a dangerous man, possibly a psychopath and positively a sociopath.
Fincher directed the film to howls of protest from the studio who did not want the film made at all, yet allowed it. Casting the two actors certainly helped get the picture made, and Fincher was left alone to make it as he wanted. Sometimes loud, profane, often vulgar, misogynistic, violent, it is not a “date” picture at all. Yet it is a brilliant commentary on an evolving society that is not sure where they are going, not yet.
Critics were very much divided on the film, but those who liked it, loved it, those who did not, hated it. Audiences were the same, though film junkies admired the movie, and celebrated its release with repeat viewings. I saw it twice at press screenings, took my wife to see it, and then anxiously awaited the film on DVD. Suffice to say I loved it.
The Academy steered clear of Fight Club, though today it is clear both actors deserved nods for Best Actor and Helena Bonham Carter should have been up for Best Supporting Actress as Marla. She looks diseased, yet oddly seductive throughout the film. Certainly not the kind of girl you take home to mom.
Fincher has gone to be one of the top American directors and Fight Club remains at the very top of his exceptional filmography. Bold, brash and daring, it is a dark miracle of a film. Unsettling, troubling and in every way brilliant.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.