Fight Club

Norton and Pitt go the distance in David Fincher's generation-defining tour de force

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!

We’re pleased to see you concurred with our lofty positioning in last year’s Top 100 list for David Fincher’s classic; in fact, you nudged it up a couple of spots, helping it mount a robust challenge for the number one slot that was only just taken by Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. (Just kidding. Click here for this year’s real top dog.)

But back to Fight Club. Everyone’s always talked about the violence. And there’s no point pretending that on theatrical release the joint-jolting scraps weren’t the most obviously impactful element of Fincher’s tale of pre-millennial tension. They were certainly what the studio marketing department clung to, pushing the film as an amped-up ride for adrenaline junkies – an MTV actioner as slick as Brad Pitt’s marble, sweat-flecked six-pack. Critics, both enraged and befuddled, queued up to completely confuse picture with poster and give it a kicking for macho-posturing and nihilism. The film has both in spades, so it wasn’t simply a case of hacks judging adverts, not product, but there was a need to “look closer” – as suggested by the tagline of 1999’s other exploration of the modern male, American Beauty.

Many viewers were enthralled by the idea of ‘fight clubs’, as well as the Project Mayhem prankster-terrorists and the towering, too-cool-for-school figure of Tyler Durden, as embodied in Pitt’s perfection. As he tells Edward Norton’s Narrator, “All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you want to look, I fuck like you want to fuck, I am smart, capable and, most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.” There were largely two outward workings of this fascination: devotion or repulsion. An audience of (primarily, though not exclusively) young men embraced Tyler Durden’s smart-mouth, straight-edge, thrift-store chic rebellion and made the film a cult. Some prominent critics – the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert, the London Evening Standard’s Alexander Walker – were alarmed by it, labelling it “cheerfully fascist” and “an inadmissible assault on personal decency”.

But neither adoration nor disgust fully appreciated the (bigger) picture. Yes, Fight Club wows with the glamorous Tyler, his mordant anti-lifestyle slogans and grasp of 21st-century ennui; with the allure of violence and the promised pleasure of giving and receiving pain (yes, men like fighting). But that’s not the end-all. Tyler is, after all, an idea: a figment of the Narrator’s insomniac imagination. It’s both wonderful and frightening that his grandstanding monologues – “our Great Depression is our lives” – chimed to such an extent with generations hexed by the failure of idealism embodied by the Baby Boomers; that the film turns on that generation, in Norton’s words, “and says,
‘Fuck you for the world you made.’”

But Tyler is defeated. Pitt’s casting is so perfect as to be bewildering for some: his cocky, charismatic, sexy swagger blinds them to the real story of Fight Club; the journey of the Narrator out of despair. It’s about Man working through materialism and nihilism, about Generation X growing up and living with scepticism but not helplessness. For it is the hollowed-out everyman of Norton – subtle, touching and hilarious – who ultimately flips his id and clings to a kind of hope. It’s just that Fincher doesn’t hold your hand or underline any message.

“I remember when Fincher sent me the book,” Norton told Total Film when we declared Fight Club the greatest film of the magazine’s lifetime in our 100th issue. “I thought, just off having seen Se7en, ‘This is such a great guy to make this movie because he is completely comfortable posing questions and refusing to give you the answer. That’s the kind of courage needed to make Fight Club’.”

It’s the kind of courage that makes the film scabrous but never glib. You glimpse its soul in the final hand-hold between the Narrator and Marla (the exquisite Helena Bonham Carter) as the towers come tumbling: it’s about the need to connect; the need to love. But its conclusion can only be sincerely reached if Tyler’s vision is presented in as exciting and seductive a manner as possible: if it’s tried on and then rejected. Fight Club is so committed – and so far from mawkish or moralistic – that certain critics can’t cope, but you need to have tasted the testosterone and nearly have been swallowed by Tyler’s whole absurd scheme to realise that he isn’t the messiah; he’s a very naughty boy. As Fincher has it, “It was more deeply rooted in Monty Python than it was in, you know, Fail-Safe.” And it is very, very funny: “Chloe looked the way Meryl Streep’s skeleton would look if you made it smile and walk around the party being extra nice to everybody”; “Candy stripe a cancer ward. It’s not my problem”. There’s also priceless physical comedy, from slapstick (Tyler’s beating at the hands of Lou) to situational (the Narrator enfolded in Meat Loaf’s pendulous breasts). And where most comedies look like tarted-up sitcoms, Fight Club looks like a million (well, $67 million) dollars.

It’s Fincher’s blessing and curse to make blockbusters for people on the fringe: films that require big budgets but risk limited appeal (although both Se7en and Panic Room were big hits). Visually, Fight Club is extraordinary: all shimmering darkness and envelope-pushing verve. It tanked, but you don’t measure greatness in dollars and cents. There are very few films that provoke and entertain in vast and equal measure. It’s taken some time – having been dubbed a failure on release – but as the years go by Fight Club only looks more prescient and powerful, more rewarding. It morphs and challenges and thrills with each fresh viewing. We’ll be rolling around in it for decades to come, revisiting it as we do Taxi Driver and Citizen Kane. It’s a masterpiece and it will endure: a hilarious comedy, a scream and a prayer. Join the club.