Fight Club is a very important movie, not for the solutions it offers, but for the questions it asks and the bold assertions it makes. David Fincher (adapting from Chuck Palahniuk's novel) is very aware of the world he's creating and uses every power at his disposal to create a harsh and chaotic world that doesn't even want to be likeable (except for the soothing IKEA world and the office which are both soothing to the point of sleep.) The visuals are jarring, harsh clashing colors and seemingly random cuts , flashing cigarette burns, characters talking into the camera, and subliminal images, combine with loud dissonant music to frame a brutal world without regard for anyone in it. Fight Club is no bedtime story.
It's no accident (and nothing in this film is an accident) that the opening scene is the narrator faking testicular cancer to belong in a support group for men who've had their testicles removed.
Our main character (Edward Norton) is a powerless man feeling completely trapped in a life that he feels, is all about owning different things. The corporations he says, will one day control the universe. And what is one life compared to "the corporations." The only time he feels anything, is when faking different conditions to attend support groups for the legitimately suffering. Things start to change when he meets Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) a fellow faker at the testicular cancer group. She stifles his ability to cry and so they agree to alternate nights. He soon runs into Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a plane, and he's taken with Tyler's observation on the real purpose of oxygen masks.
On arriving home his apartment and all his belongings are blown up. Not having another place to go he calls his new friend Tyler. "How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight." Tyler Durden(Brad Pitt) asks Norton's character. he then asks Norton to hit him as hard as he can. Tyler reciprocates and our narrator is amazed at the sensation of real pain a punch in the gut produces.Suddenly, he feels alive.
While some see this film as about finding an outlet for male aggression, I think that view misses the whole point. Albert Camus once said that rebellion (as opposed to revolution) is a man who says "No." Ultimately this is a movie about rebellion, a man who tries to say no, in every way that he can. While video games and news stories used Fight Club as a term for any informal brawling association, they completely missed the fact that Fight Club was not really about men hitting each other at all, but why they would want to. Norton's character has to go to ridiculous extremes to even consider this. But, once he starts, men from all around are joining the Fight Club to test themselves with pain.
To explain the need for Fight Club, Tyler says to the members:
"Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."
Edward Norton's character and Tyler Durden use Fight Club to rebel against the life that's been sold to them. But it's telling that the Fight Club's first outside assignment is to start a fight, which they also have to lose. As Norton observes, most people will do anything they can to avoid a fight. In Fight Club's world, normal people are used to being safe, and confrontation, especially physical confrontation poses a challenge to their whole consumerist bubble of a safe clean world. The actual physical fighting is just an outward symbol of the rebellion, the idea of living life without fearing scars.
Norton is terrific in a very tricky role. He has to be able to present himself as a listless drone, who gradually evolves into a truly dangerous individual. Brad Pitt is pitch perfect as Tyler, the sociopathic bad influence that Norton's character needs to help him reject the numbness consuming him. Rejecting nothing less than all of society and modern civilization turns out to be not an easy task.Helena Bonham Carter is brilliant in her darkly against type role as Marla. Her role evolves as she develops a deeper relationship with both Norton and Tyler. She's at least as numb as Norton is, but more fascinated with death. She speaks calmly on the phone, while thinking she took too much Xanax. "It's not a suicide thing, more of a cry for help thing." she tells them without emotion. The relationship with Marla complicates things, as she gets deeper under the narrator's skin than he would like, leading him into some big revelations about himself.
The Fight Club evolves into "Project Mayhem" a full on anarchist campaign designed to wreak havoc on the outside world as opposed to the insular Fight Club dynamic. Of course this leads to many problems including a casualty. Anarchy taken to it's logical conclusion is one person left in the world, the system destroyed with nothing to replace it and Tyler is perfectly OK with that. Where the Fight Club was about rebellion, Project Mayhem is about an anarchist revolution. Norton's narrator feels more alive than ever, but he doesn't realize that the members of the group have only traded one program for another as evidenced when "Project Mayhem" operatives attempt to follow their orders to emasculate anyone who interferes.
In the end Norton's rebellion against being powerless before society only leaves him powerless again, but the struggle this time is against himself, having become his own worst enemy. While failure to change society was inevitable, against himself, he at least has a chance. The rebellion against society was necessary, if only to let him face this fact. (without giving it away if anyone hasn't seen it, I'll just say that this is shown in a very literal way.)
Fight Club is full of testoserone, but I don't think it should be dismissed as a "man's movie." while modern man's emasculation is certainly a major theme, taken a step further, what we're really considering is the loss of the individual in a society that easily reduces us to numbers, and how we handle that. The testicles after all, are just a symbol for our names (bloodlines, heirs) and that's what's being lost. The issue of the narrator's name for example, is a pretty big deal, and he doesn't know what it really is. Eventually, for Norton's character it comes down to this, "should he be more concerned with the credit record or with Marla?" And that's a dilemma that could easily applied to either sex.
Albert Camus once said that artistic rebellion was the only true rebellion, because we can recreate the world without destroying the world that was. Fight Club does exactly that, without sparing society, or the revolutionary, the government or the citizen. I'm sure there are many that still refuse to believe the world that Fight Club creates. It's easy to say that it's only a movie and an unrealistic one. But David Fincher has definitely created a work of art with Fight Club. It asks real questions, hard ones, and leaves it to us to give the answers. A lot has changed since 1999, but the changes in the world only make this work more relevant. Do we feel any more in control? There has to be more to life than IKEA world, but only we can define what the more is. It is after all a movie, not an instruction manual.