• Zach Youngs

Classic Movie Review: Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club is a film adaptation of the novel of the same name. It revolves around a nameless protagonist, called The Narrator in the script, who gets involved with a free spirit of a soap maker named Tyler Durden. Their relationship grows as they bond over the primal need to fight, but something sours as The Narrator learns Tyler isn't just satisfied with getting his aggression out with his fists, but wants to change the world to fit his image. The film stars Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf, and Jared Leto. It is directed by David Fincher and written by Jim Uhls.

From this point on there will be "spoilers" for this 20 year old movie. You have been warned.

Nearly every time I speak with someone about this movie it is because they've brought it up. That's either because they like it or because they love the book its based on and the author who wrote the book. Every time I explain to this person why I don't like it. Then they immediately feel it necessary to point out to me that the book and the film are a satirical response to... (sigh). They defend their like of it to the core, but what they fail to realize is that it's not that I don't get it, I get that the film is supposed to skewer this behavior and put a mirror up to society, but what they fail to realize is the film is an utter failure in its messaging.

Ask a lover of this film who never read the book why they love it or if their favorite part is the social commentary of masculinity's decline because of the rise in consumerism. This film isn't a satire to significant portions of people who love it. To those people, this film is what they want the world to be. They want the world where men are not slaves to the wills of corporations or societal rules that emasculate them. They see this film as a manifesto toward a bygone era that has never truly existed. The film fails the audience by not showing how these characters are wrong or by giving them their comeuppance. It lets them win and continue to rule the world as the assholes always have.

The scene in which The Narrator notices Marla for the first time in the support groups he exploits in order to reduce the numbness he constantly feels is a prime example of what I'm describing. Suddenly, this act The Narrator is performing, this emotional terrorism he's committing, is made worse because it doesn't work anymore. It doesn't work because Marla's there, but why it really doesn't work is because a woman is encroaching on a man's space. This woman thinks she can be a tourist like he does. She's elevating herself and because it ruins it for the man, she's got to be the one to stop. It's The Narrator's right to exploit people, it's his space and it can't be shared with anyone, much less a woman. Marla's gender is never made the explicit reason The Narrator wants her to leave, except in the case of the testicular cancer support group, but it is the underlying factor. Maybe this is where the filmmakers are more clever than I give them credit for.

Fight Club is a superiorly made film. It has the assured hand of David Fincher guiding the dynamic cinematography, the brilliant editing, and every bone crunching punch that we hear in the sound mix and editing. I love how the fact that The Narrator and Tyler Durden are the same person takes as long as it does to reveal. So much so that the film may even require repeated viewings to catch all the references and the devious way in which the secret is held from the audience. There is nothing at fault in the craft, just in the ideas the craft is a vehicle for.

I also like the two central performances. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are stellar as scrappy underdogs. It's the kind of physical performance that is so intense you can't look away. Especially every time Norton is beating himself to a pulp. He makes that so physically real in that moment. This is the kind of unhinged character that I also point to whenever someone overly praises one of Pitt's more understated later works. I say, "look at what he can do when he lets loose, when he's more present and hungry for the attention." I like these older performances by Pitt, much more for that intensity.

D.W. Griffith, Leni Riefenstahl, and Roman Polanski were all excellent filmmakers. Griffith was a proponent of segregation and championed the Ku Klux Klan. Riefenstahl was a personal friend of Adolf Hitler and made many Nazi propaganda films. Polanski is a convicted of raping a 13 year old and fled his charge and is currently living in exile. David Fincher is none of those things. He's a director for hire, especially at this point in his career. He excellently crafted a film that has likely led to misogyny and toxic masculinity based on the material he was given to work with. We don't have a handle on what Fincher stands for or what influence he could have had on the storytelling like those other filmmakers. His later works suggest exactly what I mention that he crafted the film based on materials he was given and that informs his style. He molds himself to fit the picture, but does little to mold the message beyond its visual language.

All this to say, I didn't like Fight Club the first two times I watched it and I haven't come close to liking it on this third one. If anything it makes me as angry as I feel when another man makes me feel like less because I don't believe as he believes or if I don't think as he thinks a man should think. Fight Club is full of dangerous ideals of how masculinity should be manifest. It undoubtably is lost on those who try and explain to me that they don't have a foot to stand on and that they like a problematic thing. I won't encourage people to not see the film because I think it could be a discussion that we could have to dispel the hate it creates with dialogue and intelligence.

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