Rarely has a film been so keyed into its time — in ways that, commercially, will be both advantageous and damaging — as “Fight Club.” On one hand, the Fox 2000 feature is the perfect reflection of the millennium malaise that pits pervasive nihilism against an urgent need for something to grasp onto; on the other, it caps off a period in which the media and Washington have never been so assiduous in pointing the finger at Hollywood over the impact of screen violence on society and on youth in particular. But despite certain hostility from some sectors, especially in the U.S., this bold, inventive, sustained adrenaline rush of a movie about a guru who advocates brutality and mayhem should excite and exhilarate young audiences everywhere in significant numbers.
From “Alien3” through “Seven” and “The Game,” David Fincher has always been attracted to dark material. In Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name about a cult of men who channel their pent-up physical aggression into increasingly destructive pursuits, the director has found his most disturbing subject matter yet. And in debuting screenwriter Jim Uhls’ clever, savagely witty script and the unremitting volley of information it launches, Fincher has found the perfect countermeasures to balance his coldly atmospheric, often distancing style.
The position on violence here can be read on a number of levels. Somewhat controversially in light of the post-Littleton, Colo., debate, “Fight Club” plays mischievously with film conventions, almost winking at the audience to convey the characters’ awareness of being part of a movie that deals in hot-button issues. This rather audaciously gives the impression of a film throwing the responsibility for violence back onto society and refusing to accept blame.
Set in an unidentified, semi-stylized city, the story’s nameless narrator (Edward Norton) is introduced with a gun in his mouth before backing up six months to recap his troubles with insomnia. Refusing to treat him, a doctor instructs him instead to sit in on a testicular cancer victims’ group to put his own pain in perspective. He quickly becomes addicted to support groups for a range of terminal illnesses, freely weeping and embracing his “fellow” sufferers as a means to find the release he needs to sleep.
But the arrival of another tourist, Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), makes him uncomfortable with his dishonesty. Her blithe admission that the support groups are “cheaper than a movie and there’s free coffee” is one of many instances in which pitch-black, corrosive humor touches subjects that will make many audiences blanch with indignation.
Around this time, he meets enigmatic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who makes and sells soap for a living while moonlighting as a projectionist, splicing pornographic images into family films, and as a waiter, sabotaging meals. When the narrator’s apartment and all his diligently accumulated material possessions are destroyed in a freak explosion, he calls Tyler for a place to stay.
They meet at a bar and get tanked together, after which Tyler amicably picks a fight that seals their bond and marks the beginning of a phenomenon that each week attracts new participants. The narrator moves into the dilapidated mansion in a toxic waste area that Tyler calls home, routinely continuing his job all week as an auto safety checker but waiting for the charge that comes with fighting each Saturday night in a club whose members are sworn to secrecy.
A persuasive speaker who encourages a lost generation of men to access pain as a remedy for contemporary despair and numbness, Tyler’s following quickly grows. Fight club chapters start springing up across the country and when Tyler begins assigning homework, the members take their aggressive behavior into the outside world with acts of violence, vandalism and subversiveness. His disciples start turning up at the house to enlist in an army for Project Mayhem, the full extent of which is only gradually revealed.
The narrator’s feelings veer from rejection and abandonment after Tyler’s sudden disappearance to moral revulsion as he sets out to stop a dramatic chain of events and is brought face to face with discoveries regarding his true nature that provide the story’s big twist.
Uhls’ stimulating screenplay explores its existential themes articulately and accessibly, unleashing a steady stream of humor, razor-sharp dialogue, droll popular culture references and wry comments on consumerism, corporate culture and capitalism. These qualities serve to temper the story’s brutality, though many no doubt will still find it repellent.
The film also contains pronounced homoerotic undercurrents. These are present both on a surface level in the many toned bodies and especially in the way Pitt is costumed, and less superficially in themes of self-love, in the narrator’s magnetic attraction to Tyler, his almost jealous resentment first over Marla, who invades their home and Tyler’s bed, and later over the legions of followers that compromise his 2IC status, causing him to retaliate by destroying the beauty of an angel-faced blond (Jared Leto).
Performances by the three leads are uniformly potent, with Norton’s character demanding by far the greatest range. His journey from trying to create an ordered, middle-class universe furnished by Ikea and clothed by DKNY, CK and A/X to throwing it all in and finding meaning only in violence represents an uncommonly challenging attack from a major studio film on contemporary values and suppressed instincts.
Alert and edgy, Norton guides the narrator from the deadening awareness that his life is ending a minute at a time through the invigorating rush that comes when he embraces his dark side and destructive urges to the ultimate confrontation with his own responsibility for the out-of-control spiral of events. In one especially remarkable scene, the actor literally pummels himself into a bloody mess before his stunned boss.
Pitt is cool, charismatic and more dynamically physical perhaps than he has been since his breakthrough role in “Thelma and Louise,” while Bonham Carter, outfitted like a gothic prom queen and spouting acerbic maxims with attitude to burn, demolishes any residue of her buttoned-up Merchant-Ivory image in a tough, sharp-edged turn.
In a film that requires the viewer to keep absorbing information for most of its two-hours-plus duration, Fincher never loosens his grip on the material, with editor James Haygood contributing to establish a driving pace. As always with the director’s work, visual aspects are consistently impressive, from Alex McDowell’s richly elaborate, at times a little too slick production design to the drained, often greenish or jaundiced tones of d.p. Jeff Cronenweth’s extremely mobile widescreen lensing, which includes several knockout sequences in which the camera careens through skin tissue, electrical circuitry or bomb wiring. Also notable are the complex sound design and dreamy techno score by the Dust Brothers (Michael Simpson, John King).