Fight Club (1999)

D: David Fincher
S: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt

There are some good moments in David Fincher's bombastic, hyperkinetic adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel (scripted by Jim Uhls). It asks one or two pertinent questions of late twentieth century masculinity, and features canny references to the psychological basis for rise of fascism in contemporary America (also explored recently in Arlington Road and Apt Pupil). But the film is not always on target, and this particular brand of postmodern surrealism doesn't always succeed in clearly drawing the lines which it revels in crossing.

Frustrated office drone Edward Norton (American History X, Everyone Says I Love You) stops his downward spiral of consumerism and emasculation only when, after so much time on the road and in the air that he's hardly sure what's real and what's not anymore, he encounters free-willed soap salesman Brad Pitt. The two hit upon a unique idea: they will vent their anger at life by beating each other up for fun. When this catches on, an ever-increasing group of similarly out of place men find themselves banding together to celebrate brutality and social irresponsibility. Things begin to spiral out of control as Pitt begins to take matters further, establishing a crypto-fascist organisation dedicated to anarchy and the destruction of the very system which has crippled men for so long. Meanwhile wandering soul Helena Bonham-Carter finds herself involved with the pair, adding a dash of predatory female sexuality to a world defined by testosterone and phallic reclamation.

Like Natural Born Killers, Fight Club wades into the morass of postmodern amorality with an over-the-top style which invites us to see it as a matching of form to content. There is some justification for this, because as Norton's character becomes increasingly disconnected from reality, the film becomes more hallucinogenic. It's cleverly structured, framed by a voice over which increases our sense of the subjectivity with which event are being viewed, and Fincher lavishes his typically dark imagery upon the tale to great effect. He crafts an urban landscape haunted by the cut and bruised faces of members of the secret masculine society which generates a suitably fantastical feel. As it descends into madness and Norton finds his sense of his own identity crumbling following a startling twist, the film becomes a full blown nightmare in the manner of Fincher's previous Alien 3, Se7en, and The Game. It does get increasingly silly though. Granted the film is an absurdist satire and thus the more insane things become the more we are meant to question the values of the world it portrays. As Pitt builds his black-clad army of disenfranchised males, one can't help but think of Twelve Monkeys, and wonder if, in the end, this group will turn out to be just as feckless as the eco-warriors in Gilliam's film. In fact, they turn out to be a surprisingly banal bunch of Aryan robots (apart from Meat Loaf, who has an entertaining supporting role), and the film is not at all clear enough on whether this Nazi undercurrent is the result or the condition of the pressures on contemporary masculinity. Worst of all, the climax seems to restore convention rather than shatter it in a way which threatens to subvert what has been interesting about the film, unless you think of it as a kind of surrealist double-bluff in the manner of the ending of Total Recall.

You have to admire the skill with which the film has been put together. At a cost of some $60 million, it looks marvellous, throwing in virtually every trick in the book including subliminal imagery (about which it jokes self-relfexively) and CGI. It's cleverly shot, well acted and occasionally gives pause for thought. Yet there is a feeling that it's all too much ado about little enough, and that some of its more interesting thematic preoccupations are overwhelmed by its dedication to taking events as far as they can go and staging its own consumer-society apocalypse. It finally seems too much of a shaggy dog story, which is a pity given that it does occasionally hit a true note and articulates genuine and understandable masculine frustration before caving in and losing the run of itself.

Fight Club is worth seeing, though it certainly won't be to everyone's taste. It is brutal, bloody and not always easy to watch, but then that's precisely the point. It has the merit of being provocative, and of being one of a number of mainstream surrealist films to make an impact in recent American cinema (Rushmore, American Beauty). It is a pity that it just doesn't know when it's made its point and when it's time to quit.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.


Note: The Region 2 DVD was the first to be released in the older rental/sell-thru fashion by Fox. Apparantely terrified at the prospect of loss of revenue (as if News Corporation need it), they elected to release a limited edition, rental only version of the film months before the sell-thru version (but some weeks after the renal video was released) with special features. Of course enterprising fans merely had to order the Region 1 version... which is heavily endowed with special features, superb quality, and an absolutely essential purchase for DVD collectors.