Film & TV Muse

MUSE Film Club — Fight Club

Esther Okorocha revisits the violent delights and disturbances of David Fincher's 1999 thrill-ride

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Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter
Running Time: 2hr 19m
Rating: 18

“The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club”. But I’m breaking the first two rules because Fight Club is a film that deserves to be talked about, even 21 years after its debut. Earning around $100 million worldwide from a $63 million budget, the film wasn’t considered a success when it first premiered. Even now, many viewers misunderstand the point of Fight Club. Although controversial, dark, and frequently uncomfortable, Fincher’s unorthodox classic is a must-see.

Based on the 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk, the film follows an anonymous narrator (Edward Norton) who works as a recall coordinator for an unnamed, major car company. He attends various support groups, such as for testicular cancer and melanoma, but doesn’t suffer from any of the diseases of the groups he attends. He does, however, suffer from insomnia, and the emotional catharsis he releases in the support groups helps him sleep. Norton wonderfully portrays the Narrator, depicting him as morally unaffected about the fact that he is lying about his identity and medical state. All is well until Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), another “faker”, appears in his support groups and causes him to slip back into his insomnia. Soon enough the Narrator meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), an enigmatic salesman who sells soap made from stolen liposuction fat (yes, you read that right), who the narrator takes a liking to. A consensual late-night brawl between the two men turns into Fight Club, which mutates into a scheme called Project Mayhem that rapidly spirals out of control. Pitt confidently portrays Tyler as his intentions become increasingly dangerous. As we move through the movie, the narrator begins to realize that all is not what it seems.

Jim Uhls writes a compelling script that, alongside Fincher’s skilful direction, seamlessly reflects the essence of Palahniuk’s novel. So seamlessly, perhaps, that the film has been repeatedly misunderstood in the years since releasing. Spoiler alert, but Fight Club is not about fighting. It’s also not a glorification or celebration of violence. And I don’t think that the film has one singular meaning either. Underneath the story’s black humour, violent nature, and a shirtless Brad Pitt are multiple critiques of different aspects of life. It’s questioning the purpose of advertising, a commentary on postmodern masculinity, white-male resentment, consumerism and the non-existent American Dream. In a new afterword to the novel, Palahniuk describes the story as The Great Gatsby, updated a little. “An “apostolic” fiction – where a surviving apostle [the narrator] tells the story of his hero [Tyler]. There are two men and a woman [Marla]. And one man, the hero, is shot to death.” Arguably, the relationship between the narrator and Marla is far from a romance, but the similarity between the idealistic James Gatsby and Tyler Durden is apparent.

Many of those involved in the film hit on the pluralistic messages behind the story. Norton described the book as “observing the vicissitudes of Gen-X/Gen-Y’s nervous anticipation of what the world was becoming—and what we were expected to buy into”. When Pitt read the script, he related to “the existential dread of having everything you’ve been told to want and still feeling empty”. Tyler Durden outlines these themes in charismatic polemics, declaring that “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate, so we can buy shit we don’t need. We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t.”
It's extremely important to note that Fight Club is a difficult film to watch – it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. It’s not just graphic, many scenes are uncomfortable, with extreme acts of violence and that slow acid burn scene. The film is also degrading towards women. For instance, after having sex with Marla, Durden asks the narrator if he wants to “finish her off”. With this in mind, the negative criticism of the film is more than understandable. Yet I don’t think Fincher’s intention is to approve of toxic masculinity, but a critique of Tyler and his band of merry space monkeys, and a warning for those who might idolize them.

And so, despite its difficult viewing, I would urge people to watch Fight Club. Not just once, but a few times if you can. Many  issues that the film propounds– such as consumerism and capitalism – are still relevant today. Furthermore, it is a brilliantly made piece of cinema that is worthy of appreciation. Especially in 2021, a world of likes, views, and performativity, the film makes us re-evaluate the choices we make, asks us what really matters, and what near-life experiences we have yet to live.

Editor's Note: Fight Club is available to stream on Prime Video

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