Still David Fincher’s peak picture, mostly by dint of Fight Club being the only one you can point to and convincingly argue that the source material is up there with his visual and technical versatility. If Seven is a satisfying little serial-killer-with-a-twist story vastly improved by his involvement (just imagine it directed by Joel Schumacher… or watch 8mm), Fight Club invites him to utilise every trick in the book to tell the story of not-Tyler Durden, whom we encounter at a very peculiar time in his life.
Indeed, much of the fare Fincher has ended up making since has seemed like a regression into standard Hollywood product, albeit simultaneously dragged down into his pit of darkness and elevated by his technical prowess (Panic Room, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl), with only Zodiac – and perhaps, in some respects The Social Network – really showing what he’s capable of when he has a really strong script.
He exerts a phenomenally assured hold on Fight Club, with propulsive, mesmerising results on every level – narration, performance, editing, soundtrack – that fuel the dense, layered plotting, combined with the rare twist that not only rewards multiple revisits but demands them. Both because there’s so much visual information and because the entire proceedings ask to be reconsidered from the point of view to the oblivious and initially unsympathetic Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). It’s a contrast to typical twist fare where the reveal leaves one with little to pick over subsequently (The Sixth Sense, of the same year, is a prime example).
Much of the Fight Club’s afterlife has been mired in discussions relating to those who have taken its content over-literally, as a paean to narcissistic masculinity and accompanying fascistic tendencies, and the appeal of the very attitude it rebukes. Hence, the appearance of actual fight clubs. Edward Norton observed on the commentary that nihilism can seem like a sexy idea when one is young, and the film is a jet-black account of that maturing process.
In tandem with this retrospective reproach, there’s an attitude that came right from the start among over-sensitive reviewers, obviously immune to the weaknesses of the symptomatic masses, something we’ve also seen recently with Joker: that the picture is culpable for allowing those ideas to appear attractive, such that Fincher and co have a responsibility to present their point of view in as transparent a manner as possible. Thus, the idea that the director presented Fight Club far too seductively for it to be considered satire.
The consequence is that voices traditionally disposed towards claiming art isn’t responsible for society’s ills could be found taking a different tack when the art didn’t fit with their narrow definitions of social responsibility. Fincher actively encouraged putting the cat among the pigeons, and expressly avoided leading his audience by the nose: “I remember going to work to make something we knew people were going to take issue with. It was a fun act of sedition”.
Fincher took the position that you should be enamoured of Durden. That’s the point; that doesn’t mean he thinks you as a viewer will be on board with underground fight clubs or (necessarily) a credit reset, or even take issue with rampant materialism, but you’ll recognise the attractiveness of the presentation and messaging.
Tyler’s extreme philosophy requires an alluring kernel – bringing down a system dictating our soulless, hamster-on-a-wheel lives is an appealing idea in the abstract, and the film notably parts with the book in not having Tyler intentionally kill people, a significant difference if your intent is to ensnare your audience. But Tyler’s also consciously portrayed as ridiculous, an over-inflated alpha id figure. He needs to be, because this is a (intentionally) ridiculous film.
Fight Club’s a comedy played with the straightest face (the only way dour Fincher could play it). That may seem to be stating the obvious – because how could you not notice – but it seems it does need stating, to both sides of the fence that don’t seem to perceive how pervasive that is. In due course, the giddy lunacy reaches the only point it can reach, of Jack blowing his own head off and then watching calmly, his alter abated, as Project Mayhem “succeeds”.*
It’s also in keeping with Fight Club’s twistedness that Tyler does, ultimately, have a positive effect; he succeeds in making Jack a “wholer”, more empathic person. The Jack who cared only about his Ikea now cares for another (Marla), and began caring about the time Meatloaf was shot in the head; previously, he voiced cynical, jaundiced detachment about the “big moosey” he met in one of his survivor support groups (the only place where Jack’s empty soul could find sustenance).
It has been suggested that Fight Club’s third act slacks off somewhat, finally pinned down by the more linear activities of Project Mayhem after the dense whirl/assault of satire and nihilistic venom – basically after the big reveal – but if that’s the case, it is only relatively so. We’re asked to invest in the film emotionally about the same time Jack starts caring, which is as it should be. And as for taking the buildings’ detonation as an endorsement of the basic cause, well, I see it as rather a wink (if it is even taking place at all).
Brad Pitt gets all the attention, which is entirely the point, but Fight Club may represent the finest hours of both Norton and Bonham Carter. The latter fully seized an entirely atypical part and ran with it, but didn’t so much capitalise on the kudos subsequently as marry Tim Burton and become his goth muse. For a while there, Norton got mistaken for a leading man (Red Dragon, The Incredible Hulk) when he was too idiosyncratic (and reportedly temperamental) a fit. For me, it’s his narration, and the tone he imbues the film, that really makes it what it is; in its way, Jack’s voice is as mellifluous as the Dust Brothers score.
Fincher seems unlikely to make anything as impactive on the zeitgeist again – see also Danny Boyle – having firmly settled into his familiar, well-trodden serial-killer pastures, even getting the opportunity to go for broke with them on Netflix. You kind of wish he had something else besides on his mind, but at least he’s doing what he knows he does well. There’s a virtuosity to his visuals in Fight Club that still entirely impresses – for me at least, the liberal use of CGI hasn’t dated it all, because it’s so well and often ironically – which you can’t often say of CGI – used.
The picture’s twist and thematic element (a movement to eliminate debt) were of course more recently remixed by Mr Robot, which ultimately failed to make a good on either idea (it didn’t help that it wasn’t nearly as sick, twisted or funny). Well, I say that. I gave up after Season Two, so maybe it did come right in the end.
But it goes to show Fight Club’s shelf-life. Norton compared its impact to The Graduate, but its controversial qualities ally it more closely with something like A Clockwork Orange, which continues to resurface as a subject for debate. As Fincher commented recently in an interview with Empire, “If Chuck [Palahniuk] had been angry and not questioning, if he had a thesis that he was ready to expound upon about how unfair shit is, had he truly been the proto-fascist that people misinterpret – the guy who coined the term “snowflake” – I don’t know that we would still be talking about it”. Fight Club’s not a movie you need to feel guilty about loving, or even one where you should feel the need to explain why you love it. You are not your fucking favourite movies.
*Addendum 09/08/22: While ploughing a different furrow to Fincher’s serial-killer output, the multiple personality/alter status of Fight Club’s narrator places it in similar territory to the world of CIA/MKUltra mind-controlled subjects. Rather than his cool, distanced approach and penchant for multiple takes, it’s this programmer quality that most allies Fincher with Kubrick.