Spoiler alert for a 20-year-old movie ...
Let’s break a couple rules, because the time has come in this series to talk about “Fight Club.”
No movie released in 1999 has stayed with me more than David Fincher’s sardonic, stylized adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s seminal 1996 novel, and no other film from that year that isn’t “The Matrix” has had a more lasting cultural impact. It’s a cautionary tale as much as it is a critique of consumerism and modern values, and one that continues to speak across the decades.
“Fight Club” warns of a generation of men deadened by societal expectations of status and conformity, and the dangers of awakening — and leaving unchecked — their latent, primal masculinity. The movie, adapted for the screen by Jim Uhls, embraces the world view of its nihilistic central figure, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), for much of its running time but ultimately rejects him and the anarchy he seeks to foment. Because Tyler, of course, is just one aspect of the film’s unnamed narrator (Edward Norton), a mental projection who is alive and free in ways the narrator — a slave to his white-collar job and IKEA-furnished condo — can never be.
The narrator is unaware of his mental illness until the third act, leading to a mind-blowing moment almost on par with the ending of “The Sixth Sense.” The difference is that here the twist isn’t the point, and the revelation works to solidify the movie’s already strong themes.
The story — and Tyler’s creation — starts with insomnia. The narrator finds the only way he can sleep is by attending various support groups, finding an emotional release in the real pain of those afflicted with testicular cancer, tuberculosis and various other maladies. It’s all going rather swimmingly for him until he notices a woman, Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), at multiple groups. Like him, she’s a “tourist” feeding off others’ misfortune, and her presence, her falsehood, denies him the catharsis he so desperately craves.
Around this time, the narrator, on one of his many business flights, meets Tyler, a remarkably self-possessed soap salesman whom he inexplicably turns to a short time later when his condo explodes, leaving him homeless. A night of bonding over pitchers of beer and a shared malaise for a culture they believe discourages men from being their true selves ends with these indelible words from Tyler: “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.”
And just like that, as quick as a sudden punch to the ear, Fight Club is born.
Bigger and more abstract than any individual, Fight Club is a place where all men are equal, regardless of social class. The fights aren’t about winning or hurting the man standing across from you; they’re about feeling something — anything — real in a world that seemingly denies that at every turn. Fighting is about embracing your id and accepting pain as a sign of being truly alive.
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything,” Tyler says.
“Anything” quickly evolves into Project Mayhem, and this is where the movie starts to turn on Tyler. Recruits line up outside Tyler and the narrator’s dilapidated home, don matching black uniforms, shave their heads and start making soap and explosives. They’re as mindless as the corporate drones filling the cubicles at the narrator’s workplace.
Though Tyler’s intent is never to kill, their mischief — I need to know more about the “Missing monkeys found shaved” newspaper clipping Tyler posts on the wall — soon grows more extreme, with deadly consequences. Eventually, it prompts the narrator to action as he tries to unravel the mystery of Tyler and stop whatever he has planned.
Throughout it all, there’s Marla, a damaged woman herself, who embarks on a sexual relationship with Tyler, leading to a number of awkward, confrontational scenes with the narrator. The film is a radically different experience on second viewing, and perhaps nothing changes more than our view of Marla. Initially, she’s overly dramatic, unreasonable and unstable. But armed with the knowledge of who Tyler really is, we empathize greatly with Marla as she contends with a lover grappling with issues she can’t begin to fathom. Ironically, Marla triggered Tyler’s creation by robbing the narrator of his outlet at the support groups.
Though the ending is changed, “Fight Club” the movie is faithful to Palahniuk’s book, capturing his cynical humor and — through Norton’s deadpan narration, the Dust Brothers’ electronic music score and digital effects creating some innovative visual flourishes — the rhythm of his writing. Fincher directs the heck out of every frame, and there’s an energy that propels the movie forward even as it conveys the mundane reality of its first act.
Pitt, at the height of his movie stardom at the time, shows he’s really a character actor with a leading man’s face and digs into the role of Tyler. His charismatic turn makes us — for a time — believe in Tyler’s mantras and wish we could be him or at least be a little more like him. By contrast and design, Norton is bland, ordinary, an everyman who awakens only after everything around him has spun out of control. They make for an engaging duo, and in hindsight, it’s plain to see how their characters represent two halves of the same person.
As revered as it is today, “Fight Club” was a divisive, controversial film when it was released in October 1999. Critical reaction was mixed, with many decrying its violence, which, graphic though it may be, doesn’t seem nearly as extreme now as it did 20 years ago.
Though it led the box office on its opening weekend, “Fight Club” ended up a commercial flop, grossing only $37 million domestically against a $65 million budget. It found its audience on DVD, though, where it was one of the first “special editions” loaded with bonus features and audio commentary tracks.
It’s no surprise a film with such challenging themes did not find immediate success. What’s unexpected is that a major studio — 20th Century Fox in this case — put up the money it did to make such a daring, subversive picture. With under-performing movies quickly forgotten after opening weekend, studios don’t take risks like this today, which means we’re in danger of losing a valuable portion of our cinematic output. Of course, if more “risky” films over the years turned out as incisive, confident and powerful as “Fight Club,” that would change in a hurry.
Rated R for disturbing and graphic depiction of violent anti-social behavior, sexuality and language. 139 minutes.
Like Maki at the Movies on Facebook: www.facebook.com/MakiAtTheMovies.