Fight Club (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With its kinetic style, visceral approach, compelling storyline, and powerful social message, Fight Club makes a commanding case to be considered the '90s version of A Clockwork Orange. In a time when so few motion pictures leave an impact, Fight Club refuses to be ignored or dismissed. The experience lingers, demanding to be pondered and considered, and, unlike 95% of modern-day thrillers, there is a great deal here to think about and argue over. Fight Club presents an overload of thought-provoking material that works on so many levels as to offer grist for the mills of thousands of reviews, feature articles, and post-screening conversations.

Pre-release interest in Fight Club was understandably high, primarily because of those involved with the project. Jim Uhls' script is based on an influential novel by Chuck Palahniuk (a book that, while not required material in schools, has consumed the free time of countless readers). The lead actor is the ever-popular Brad Pitt, who makes his strongest bid to date to shed his pretty boy image and don the mantle of a serious thespian. Those dubious about Pitt's ability to pull this off in the wake of his recent attempts in Seven Years in Tibet (which is briefly referenced as an in-joke during Fight Club) and Meet Joe Black will suffer a change of heart after seeing this film. Pitt's male co-star, Edward Norton, is widely recognized as one of the most intelligent and versatile performers of his generation. And Fight Club's director, David Fincher, has already made a huge artistic impression on movie-goers with only three features to his credit: Alien 3, Seven (starring Pitt), and The Game. Mix these elements together in Fox's publicity blender, and Fight Club will not carry the title of "Best Movie of 1999 That No One Saw."

The film begins by introducing us to our narrator, Jack, who is brilliantly portrayed by Norton. A chameleon of an actor, Norton seems perfectly suited to every role he plays, whether it's the seemingly-wronged defendant in Primal Fear or the white supremacist in American History X. Here, the actor flows fluidly into the part of a cynical but mild-mannered employee of a major automobile manufacturer who is suffering from a bout of insomnia. When he visits his doctor for a remedy, the disinterested physician tells him to stop whining and visit a support group for testicular cancer survivors if he wants to meet people who really have problems. So Jack does exactly that - and discovers that interacting with these victims gives him an emotional release that allows him to sleep. Soon, he is addicted to attending support group meetings, and has one lined up for each night of the week. That's where he meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter, looking nothing like the poster girl for British period pieces), another "faker." Unlike Jack, however, she attends purely for the voyeuristic entertainment value.

Then, on what can be described as the worst day of his life (an airline loses his luggage and his apartment unit explodes, destroying all of his possessions), Jack meets the flamboyant Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a soap salesman with an unconventional view of life. Since Jack is in need of a place to live, Tyler invites him to move in, and the two share a "dilapidated house in a toxic waste part of town." Tyler teaches Jack lessons about freedom and empowerment, and the two begin to physically fight each other as a means of release and rebirth. Soon, others find out about this unique form of therapy, and Fight Club is born - an underground organization (whose first and second rules are: "You do not talk about Fight Club") that encourages men to beat up each other. But this is only the first step in Tyler's complex master plan.

In addition to lead actors Pitt, Norton, and Bonham Carter, all of whom do impeccable work, there are a pair of notable supporting players. The first is Meat Loaf (yes, that Meat Loaf), who portrays the ineffectual Bob. It's a surprisingly strong performance, with the singer-turned-actor capturing the nuances of a complex character. Jared Leto, who is becoming better known to audiences (he was recently in The Thin Red Line), is the blond Angel Face.

Told in a conventional fashion, Fight Club would still have been engaging. However, Fincher's gritty, restless style turns it into a visual masterpiece. The overall experience is every bit as surreal as watching Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. This is a tale that unfolds in an eerie alternate universe where the melodies of life have the same rhythm as in ours but are in a different key. Fincher also shows just enough restraint that his flourishes seem like important parts of the storytelling method instead of gimmicks. And there are a lot of them. In one scene, a character's apartment is laid out like a page in a furniture catalog, complete with text blurbs superimposed on the screen describing the various pieces. There are occasional single frame interruptions that flash by so quickly that they may pass unnoticed. The film opens with a truly inventive close-up - one that literally gets under the skin. Also in play: a non-linear chronology, a voiceover by a narrator who might not be entirely reliable, frequent breaking of the fourth wall, and an occasional freeze-frame. As was true of Fincher's other three films, Fight Club is dark and fast-paced. There's not a lot of time for introspection. One could call this MTV style, but, unlike many equally frantic movies, there's a reason for each quick cut beyond preventing viewers from becoming bored.

Perhaps the most discussed aspect of Fight Club will be its attitude towards and graphic depiction of violence. Even before the film's official premiere, voices have been raised claiming that the movie glorifies violence by portraying it as something positive. This was the complaint leveled against A Clockwork Orange, which, less than three decades after its controversial release, is universally regarded as a classic. There's no denying that Fight Club is a violent movie. Some sequences are so brutal that a portion of the viewing audience will turn away. (The scene that caused me to wince was when one character reached into his mouth and pulled out a loose tooth.) But the purpose of showing all this bloody pummeling is to make a telling point about the bestial nature of man and what can happen when the numbing effects of day-to-day drudgery cause people to go a little crazy. The men who become members of Fight Club are victims of the dehumanizing and desensitizing power of modern-day society. They have become cogs in a wheel. The only way they can regain a sense of individuality is by getting in touch with the primal, barbaric instincts of pain and violence.

In A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick depicted the actions of the Droogs but did not condone it. This is Fincher's approach in Fight Club. As the film progresses, he systematically reveals each new turn in an ever-deepening spiral that descends into darkness and madness. There's also a heavy element of satire and black comedy. Macabre humor can be found everywhere, from the pithy quips traded by Jack and Tyler to the way Jack interacts with his boss. When combined together, the satire, violence, and unpredictable narrative make a lasting and forceful statement about modern-day society. It's a timely message that hints at why there are post office shootings and kids in schools killing their fellow students. By blaming movies like Fight Club for real-life horrors, politicians want us to look at the world through rose-colored glasses that they have tinted. Instead, Fincher offers a clear, uncompromising portrait that disturbs because it is perceptive and defies the facile answers proffered by elected officials. Movies are not to blame. Guns are not to blame. People and the society that has spawned and stifled them are.

The film has a scope not hinted at in the trailers. After all, how could 139 minutes of untrained boxers beating the hell out of each other be interesting? Fight Club doesn't need to address that question, because its agenda is much larger. To reveal more, however, would be to disclose twists and surprises best left for each viewer to uncover during his or her own movie-going experience. Of course, as is true of all great films, it is possible to know the entire plot of Fight Club beforehand and still be blown away by the experience.

Without going into specifics, I can state that there is a structural similarity to The Sixth Sense. Here, however, the twist is not the whole point of the movie, and it is integrated more effectively into the overall story. If you figure out the so-called "surprise" in The Sixth Sense before the director wants you to, it's difficult to see that film as more than an overlong, uneven example of overt manipulation. The opposite is true of Fight Club, which possesses the depth and breadth to command the attention and respect of anyone who unveils the central conceit before it is explicitly revealed. It's also worth noting that this doesn't happen at the very end, so, while it is an important aspect of Fight Club, it does not dictate the movie's success or failure.

It remains to be seen whether Fight Club will generate any Oscars. The strength of the writing, direction, and acting justifies a stream of nominations, but quality has never been the driving factor in who is recognized by the Academy. Regardless of how it is received in February, when the nominations are announced, Fight Club is a memorable and superior motion picture - a rare movie that does not abandon insight in its quest to jolt the viewer. This marriage of adrenaline and intelligence will make Fight Club a contender for many Best 10 lists at the end of 1999.

Fight Club (United States, 1999)

Ranked #2 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1999
Run Time: 2:19
U.S. Release Date: 1999-10-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1