Darkly funny and powerful, Fight Club is a unique masterpiece
Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf Aday, Jared Leto, and Zach Grenier
Screenplay: Jim Uhls, based on the novel "Fight Club" by Chuck Palahniuk
Producers: Ross Bell, Cean Chaffin, and Art Linson
Director: David Fincher
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing and graphic depiction of violent anti-social behavior, sexuality and language
Those of you that know me may understand my anticipation for Fight Club's release. For those that don't, let me give you a little background history. Simply put, I consider David Fincher to be the greatest living director working today. His visual sense is by far the most intriguing of all "visual" directors, capturing hauntingly resonant images without relying on obvious effects. His first film, Alien3 haunted me, merely because of the brooding atmosphere. And then he came out with his masterwork, Se7en. It is this film that inspired me to enter film school in hopes of one day being able to create art like my idol. I've seen Se7en more times than any other film, and have studied every single scene. It's truly brilliant. Then, in 1997, Fincher came out with The Game which I admittedly underrated when I initially saw it. After subsequent viewings, I admit that even The Game is brilliant--a nicely constructed, viscerally-thrilling suspense film. So of course, my anticipation of Fight Club ran high. I've waited over a year to see this film, and now that I have, what do I think?
First of all, wipe any and all expectations you might have clean from your mind. Now, believe me when I say, Fight Club is hands down one of the most complex, thematically-rich films of the 90s. So complex that I needed two viewings before I was able to grasp everything the film was about. I highly recommend seeing the film before reading anything on it. Even reviews don't accurately describe what Fight Club is about. As Morpheus said of the Matrix in The Matrix, "you can't be told what [it] is, you have to see it for yourself." Likewise with Fight Club. It's this decade's most profound piece of movie making as well as being one of this decade's most original. Unfortunately, due to its uniqueness, an audience will be hard to pinpoint. The same target audience that it speaks to also might not understand its deep-seated themes. It's rather misogynistic on a certain level. But then again, so was Thelma & Louise. Fellow critic Berge Garabedian calls Fight Club the wake-up call for men, just as Thelma & Louise was the wake-up call for women. I must agree.
Unfortunately, initial reaction has been substantially negative, particularly from audiences (which is, let's face it, all that matters in Hollywood). Strangely, the reaction is similar to that of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, which also dealt with violent and controversial matter. As a result (and judging from Fincher's previous films), I will be making a presumptuous and completely biased statement here (hey, it is my review--don't agree? Write your own). Fincher is the Kubrick for our generation--a competent director with a unique visual sense and a love for the controversial. The comparisons go even further, with Fincher now turning to novels as a source of material (Kubrick was well known for mixing his arts). Stylistically, they couldn't be more different, but thematically, they tread similar ground.
Fight Club is Fincher's first real excursion into the world of controversial art. Say what you will about Se7en, it's far more mainstream than this. As a result, box office expectations look grim. But enough about what it's financial prospects are. Fight Club is one of those rare films that has so much to say that one viewing will not suffice. It opens with our narrator Jack (Edward Norton) held captive with a gun stuck in his open mouth. On the other end of this gun is Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a man who views modern day society as corruptive of men. Flashback a year or so to when Jack is suffering from insomnia, wandering around his comfy condo, searching through IKEA catalogues for the next piece of good furniture. His insomnia is relentless, keeping him in a state of constant dreaminess--he's never quite awake, and he's never quite asleep. He works for a big car company, evaluating car accidents and deciding whether or not it is cost effective for them to warrant a recall. All of these factors dehumanize him, making him a mindless drone in a series of drones.
That is, until he discovers therapy groups. Starting with testicular cancer and working his way up, Jack finds himself addicted. The presence of human beings with problems worse than his own allows him to express his emotions openly. As a result, he is able to sleep. "Babies don't sleep this well," Jack narrates. All good things, of course, can never go on for long. His habit is shattered by Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter). "If I had a tumor, I'd name it Marla." He knows that she is a "tourist," just there for the entertainment and free coffee. Just knowing she is a faker ruins the illusion for Jack. How many fakers are there in the group?
On his way home from a business trip, Jack gets seated next to Tyler, who starts some of the most interesting "single-serving" small chat he's ever had. As they say, things will never be the same. He arrives home to find his condo a flaming disaster, all his possessions lying on the ground, burnt to a crisp. He phones Tyler, asks him for a place to stay. There is only one condition: "I want you to hit me as hard as you can!" These weekly fights between the two soon develop a crowd, lusting to join in the bloodbath. In a society with jobs that require no feeling, at least they can feel something, even if it may be the pain of a tooth being dislodged by a fist. It strikes a chord in them--with their primal urges as men. Society today (particularly in America) doesn't exactly condone violence, and yet sometimes the only thing a man knows how to do is throw a punch.
Much criticism has been made about the film, particularly that it glorifies violence. Yes, in a way it does, but so do a thousand other films, such as Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and even Happy Gilmore. What differentiates Fight Club is the fact that while it is a condemnation of society's dehumanizing effects, it is also a warning. Violence, just like the therapy groups and other various drugs, is addictive, and it quickly leads into disturbing acts of terrorism. Violence is not the answer to men's problem... it's merely another problem. Fight Club smartly realizes that it doesn't have a good answer, and it doesn't offer one. Instead, three-fourths of the way through, it turns to focus on Jack's internal turmoil, as he finally discovers a shocking secret. This secret is what makes the film work as well as it does. Much like The Sixth Sense, it's a secret you probably won't be able to guess in advance. However, unlike The Sixth Sense, Fight Club doesn't end with it. It continues on to show what the revelation of this secret will do to our hero Jack. It's the final twist of the screw, and it adds another thematic layer (as if there weren't enough already). Jack has believed himself to be in control all the while, and the revelation rips the rug out from under him. Society, it seems, has gotten the upper hand.
The casting of Edward Norton is something the casting director should be commended for, but casting Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden is a stroke of genius. Brad Pitt, arguably one of the most beautiful people in Hollywood, offers a lot of seemingly hypocritical advice as Durden, claiming that society wants us to look a certain way (in fact, society wants us to look like Pitt himself). "Is that what a man should look like?" Norton asks. Pitt laughs at the ad for Calvin Klein--for all we know, it could be Pitt's body. This may seem a little confusing considering the film's philosophy, yet with the surprise twist, we realize that casting Pitt is probably the best decision anyone made while making the film. Pitt is outstanding too, a perfect match to Norton. Norton gives an Oscar-worthy performance in a role that requires a lot of subtlety and a lot of psychological angst. How do you express a character's inner emptiness physically? Helena Bonham Carter rounds out the main cast, and likewise she is superb. Her skitterish motions create a uniquely suicidal character whose lust for men drive her to extremes. She's the film's only real fleshed-out female character, and she virtually personifies everything negative about women (strange, however, that both leads are still attracted to her). Meat Loaf makes a memorable appearance as a man with breasts, while Jared Leto is given a small, slight role that requires him to do very little. Something tells me a few of his scenes were cut. Still, it's a worthy cast, led by three powerful actors.
And of course Mr. Fincher himself. Directing this with his usual assured hand, he creates a gorgeous, dark, murky world in which these events might even seem possible. It's not quite our reality, but it's close enough to hit home. Fincher is a master visual expert, a wiz at enticing our eyes. While both Se7en and The Game are superior visually, Fight Club is no slacker, with some stunning shots including the opening credits sequence which take place inside Norton's brain. He directs it with a sort of dream logic, but unlike any other film I've seen, he strays from conventional storytelling. There are scenes in which the film itself seems like it will tear off its reel, apparently to remind us that we are just watching a movie. Fincher throws everything at us, including subliminal messages (many will remember the Paltrow headshot during the climax in Se7en, that is if you were looking closely), a computer-generated sex scene, and even an entire monologue dedicated to the cigarette burns in the upper-right corner of the screen. While Fincher hasn't topped his masterpiece, he still is today's best director.
Fight Club is rated R for disturbing and graphic depiction of violent anti-social behavior, sexuality and language. Yes, it's violent. Yes, you'll be uneasy (as you should be). The film is definitely for a certain demographic (mainly, my own demographic: 18-24 year old males). And despite all the controversy, Fincher has created what could easily be described as the 90s A Clockwork Orange. It's an unflinching look at what society has done to men (yes, it really has). Fight Club spoke to me on a deeper level than any other film this year. It's a film that men and even women can view for perhaps a better understanding of what can happen to us men in this crazed, consumer-driven world. It's not the answer... it's the starting point. And all the while, it's great entertainment.
**** out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie