Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source Fox DVD
Seldom (if at all) does the critic admit his fault. No matter how ridiculously positive the review for a poor work (a handful of obscure critics liked Patch Adams) or, conversely, how negative the response for an accomplished work, critics habitually stick to their initial views. In my experiences, appreciation for a film has only grown in subsequent viewings (one of the fundamental tenets of this website, even, is in revisiting films); for this reason I abandon the importance of the initial response.
The case: Fight Club, a film as curiously appealing as your first learned profanity and as dangerous as chewing a light bulb.
Director David Fincher’s previous effort, Se7en, was brilliant, the cumulative product of several craftsmen at their best: Kevin Spacey as killer John Doe, Morgan Freeman as a reluctant detective, and cinematographer Darius Khondji whose photography for a rain-soaked New York looks unlike any other film. Se7en has no outright flaws (aside from a boring poster that misrepresents the film) and it was only Fincher’s second film. His third, Fight Club, I predicted to be his reckoning, in which he would establish himself as one the most talented contemporary directors. I was disappointed.
Fight Club, I thought, was a mess. It was clearly the product of technical ambition, though, in sight of its purpose lost aim. It was an incomprehensible mess of a film with meandering philosophical musings and truly cringe-inspiring violence.
The film bears an obvious resemblance to Taxi Driver. The main character of each is an insomniac, grows to hate society, becomes violent, and ultimately comes to abandon his violent actions. At the end, however, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle is a hero whereas Tyler Durden only realizes his sickness. Moreover, the overhead tracking shot at the climax of Taxi Driver persists to be one of the most harrowingly violent images in film. Several scenes in Fight Club conjure deserved comparisons.
The most controversial aspect of Fight Club is not its inherent violence but rather its consequence. For example, violence in the film is a method of cleansing — a necessary means of reaching mental equilibrium, a process that gives meaning, definition, and, more importantly, feeling to a numb existence. The fact that members of Fight Club continually beat each other to pulps is not as controversial as the fact that they are doing it for therapy. The practice is intended to tempt those trapped in capitalist society.
Edward Norton is this film’s legendary unnamed narrator. He lives passively and in pseudonyms at therapy groups (Cornelius among numerous others). He is completely disinterested in his surroundings and is incapable of displaying emotion. The film is a bitter commentary on consumerist society and the narrator functions as the archetypal pawn. He has become trapped in a consumerist way of life, expressing his taste and interests in furniture and dress. His occupation, in automotive liability, only reminds him of his world’s faults. In a montage illustrating his existence, a voice-over alleges that “this is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” At this point Fight Club’s philosophy becomes apparent.
He meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), soap salesman, with whom he drinks after discovering his apartment in burnt shreds, floors below its desired location. Following their meeting, in a moment of sporadic aggression, Tyler tells Cornelius to hit him “as hard as you can.” The two exchange allowed blows, the trend grows, and so ensues their fight club.
Fight Club is a fraternity employing a brutally nihilistic regard for consumerism. In it patrons adhere to its eight rules, eschew their shirts and belts and beat each other whimsically until a participant taps out or, on occasion, is knocked out. In this legion of men, violence is a means of sensitization. Tyler even addresses the group in an obvious parallel to the support groups. For the narrator it is the ultimate form of catharsis.
One of the more stirring scenes in the film involves Tyler approaching a convenience store owner and threatening him to pursue his initial goal, to be a veterinarian. Tyler holds a gun to the man’s head, steals his ID, and tells him he will die unless he is on his way to being a vet. “Tomorrow,” Tyler says, “his breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted.” In his effort to make a difference Tyler Durden invokes fear. Though there is, perhaps, some laudable idea behind Tyler’s ploy to change this man’s life, the bottom line is that the man’s existence and life choices are simply none of his affair. At this point his fight club is no longer justified by consented involvement. In a later scene, the back of the door to Tyler’s bedroom is seen strewn with ID’s.
An obvious interpretation of the film is that fight club is a primal method of venting masculine aggression. In order to make this claim, it is natural for this masculine trait to be dialogically related to a feminine one. Fight Club’s palpable masculinity is compounded by the involvement of Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). She first interrupts the narrator’s renewed Zen by cheating on the same therapy meetings. Marla eventually becomes involved with Tyler and furthers the separation between he and the narrator.
Marla is the primary female character (and only, for that matter). It is a name frequently uttered with interpretably sexist disdain. Marla is the source of Fight Club’s abandon. She is never made up, wears cheap clothes, smokes, and always looks like a whore. This female by default collects the brunt of the film’s criticism for being misogynistic. Though it is obvious why, offering that criticism is too easy, given that its philosophy requires more interpretative thought. For that reason Fight Club relies upon multiple viewings, each yielding a heightened understanding.
Furthermore the ending disestablishes the entire narrative. Watching the film repeatedly is in turn essential in understanding it. For this reason video is Fight Club’s most apt medium. In particular, a viewer with a quick thumb can catch the subliminal Brads on the DVD.
Visually the film is a masterwork. A screenplay is the spine of any film, and in this case it is not only functionally complimented but enhanced by score and visuals. In return comparisons to Fincher’s work in music videos become obvious, though drawing that comparison would only cheapen his work. Music videos are extraneous marketing compliments to albums. This is a reactionary work of art. It is clear, in whichever case, Fincher has a sense of blending elements into one cohesive work.
Fight Club is the ultimate bully film. It takes a familiar scenario — a white-collar occupation that yields the ability to buy matching furniture — and abandons it. The spirit of Fight Club I have come to appreciate in subsequent viewings; its ideas deserve notice.
Understand, however, that there is a notable flaw in the bully film. Both Taxi Driver and Fight Club offer societal commentaries that are both justified and frighteningly convincing, but the characters relaying their philosophies are sick. Travis Bickle and Tyler Durden are in no means standards by which to measure society’s faults. By the same token, society may be responsible for their sickness. Violence may be their only means of combating their source of aggression.
The film’s most lasting image is of a bar of soap. This assertion may seem related to Tyler’s stint as a soap salesman. His main ingredient is human fat. Selling it, thusly, is a hilariously morbid method of displaying his consumerist disregard. This entrepreneurial scheme is referenced on the film’s poster (and teaser) by the image of a pink bar of soap.
However, this image carries another, more important reference. Soap cleans, and the image of it on the film’s poster suggests that Fight Club will have a similar effect. Watching the film and becoming involved, convinced by its ideas is a moral cleansing, albeit a very disturbing one.