Fight Club

Guaranteed: Fight Club will blow your skirt up. It's not just the rush of seeing Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and director David Fincher hit career peaks in a groundbreaking film. And it's not the sick kick of watching Gen X amateurs bare-knuckling each other in seedy basements; that'd get old fast. The film's bold, bruising humor leaves marks on a wide range of hot-button issues: It's about being young, male and powerless against the pacifying drug of consumerism. It's about solitude, despair and bottled-up rage. It's about how not to feel dead as Y2K approaches. It's about daring to imagine the disenfranchised reducing the world to rubble and starting over.

For daring to imagine, Fight Club will take a few hits. Fincher's film of Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel – with a high-voltage script by newcomer Jim Uhls – is already being misinterpreted as an "apology for fascism." One critic wondered whether Rupert Murdoch's Fox 2000, the company releasing Fight Club, "knew what it was doing" in spending $70 million on a movie that is "not only anti-capitalism but anti-society and, indeed, anti-God." My take is that Fight Club is pro-thinking, no matter what deities are offended. Is that threatening? You bet.

Fincher (Seven, The Game), superbly served by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and editor James Haygood, makes brilliant use of film language to take us inside the head of the story's narrator (Norton) – a yuppie drone whose mind is on fire with revolutionary ideas. This wired insomniac refers to himself as Jack, after a series of magazine articles in which organs of the human body talk about themselves in the first person ("I Am Jack's Brain"). Fittingly, the striking first image of Fight Club puts us literally inside Jack's brain. Driven by turbocharged music from the Dust Brothers, the camera swoops and dives around a vast network of nerve cells, emerging only to catch Jack sucking on a gun barrel thrust down his throat by Pitt's Tyler Durden: "I Am Jack's Kinky Libido."

It's Tyler, master of many twisted trades, who puts flesh on Jack's anarchic fantasies. Tyler the waiter serves no soup he hasn't whizzed in. Tyler the entrepreneur sells soap that he makes out of fat stolen from liposuction dump sites. Tyler the film projectionist shows family flicks spliced with frames of a lunging red penis or a yawning wet vagina.

You can't blame Jack for thinking, "I Am Jack's Raging Envy" as he compares Tyler's night jobs with his own workaday routine as an auto-safety checker. Lack of sleep has left Jack a frazzled mess. His doctor recommends a visit to a church basement where people with real pain hook up. At a meeting for testicular cancer, Jack is bearhugged by Big Bob (Meat Loaf Aday), a patient whose hormone therapy has given him "bitch tits." Big Bob – just wait till you see the raw wit and emotion that Loaf invests in the role – doesn't know that Jack is just a tourist. And Jack is too addicted to the "undivided attention you get when people think you're dying" to feel guilty.

Jack is soon a support-group junkie – melanomas, blood parasites, you name it. Then another faker, chain-smoking Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), invades his space. Marla figures the groups are "cheaper than a movie, and there's free coffee." Bonham Carter, looking like the waif from hell,has never been this tough or terrific. Jack is turned on, but it's Tyler who nails her ("I Am Jack's Inflamed Sense of Rejection").

Tyler moves Jack past support groups by devising fight clubs, where emasculated men bond by punching one another until numbness gives way to feeling. Tyler says a fight club is for guys "who work at jobs they hate to buy things they don't need;" in a scene of gleeful malice, he destroys Jack's "Ikea nesting instinct" by bombing his apartment.

Norton catches lightning in a revelatory performance that keeps delivering miracles of character nuance. He may be the best actor of his generation. Watching Jack beat himself bloody in front of his boss is a high-wire act that belongs in a time capsule. And Pitt, in his riskiest role to date, uses his sexual swagger to subversive comic effect; he's freer, funnier and freakier than you've ever seen him. It's Tyler who shows Jack how to add nitric acid to soap and make nitro-glycerin. It's Tyler who turns fight clubs into militias and then bomb squads ready to blast the foundations of the planet's power base: banks and credit-card companies.

Fincher is a visionary who keeps Fight Club firing on all cylinders, raising hallucinatory hell in ways too satisfying toi spoil here. As for the dissenters, "I Am Jack's Complete Lack of Surprise". Fincher's refusal to moralize and reassure has possed off the watchdogs of virtue. Let 'em bark. They think anything alive is dangerous. Fight Club pulld you in, challenges your prejudices, rocks your world and leaves you laughing in the face of an abyss. It's alive, all right. It's also an uncompromising American classic.

From The Archives Issue 824: October 28, 1999
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