With "Fight Club" I figured if you can play on the basis of something that really scares people like fights or terminal illness ... if you go right up to it and laugh at it, and have fun around it, and really disempower it by doing that, then that's the greatest thing you can do. I can make people laugh about death, laugh about fights, laugh about pain. Y'know, I did some volunteer work in a hospice for the terminally ill a couple of years ago and that's where a lot of the stuff in the book came from. I really loved how people who were really facing it... facing death... could be really honest and funny and I found that really inspiring to be around.
- author Chuck Palahnuik
When Oregonian author Chuck Palahnuik first unleashed his novel "Fight Club" onto an unsuspecting public back in 1996, he drew both praise and criticism for his unflattering exploration of 'mischief, mayhem, and soap'. On the one hand, he has been called this generation's answer to J.G. Ballard (author of "Crash"), a literary genius whose acerbic wit and cynical outlook speaks for the alienated, the disaffected, and the ignored. In contrast, others have viewed Palahnuik's seminal work with disdain, accusing the thirty-something author of glorifying violence, desensitizing readers to the ugly consequences of his nihilistic philosophy. Likewise, the cinematic incarnation of Palahnuik's tome, the outcome of intense bidding between rival studios, has also created much of the same polarization among audiences and critics, who pit the film's intellectual underpinnings against its visceral depictions of violence. But regardless of whether you are pro- or anti-, like its source material, "Fight Club" is a cautionary tale that shovels out a number of thought-provoking ideas that cannot be ignored.
The world of in which "Fight Club" takes place is a lonely one, especially for Jack (Edward Norton of "Rounders"), the film's narrator and tour guide. He spends his days working for a car manufacturer, weighing the cost of an automobile recall against the expected settlements for lawsuits arising from a deadly defect, while spending his nights filling up his apartment with picture-perfect furnishings from the latest Ikea catalog. Jack's life is a meaningless existence, spent on airplanes and assembly-line tasks, being nothing more than a small cog in a faceless consumerism-driven machine. Starved for human contact and genuine emotions in his workaholic world, his bottled up emotions manifest themselves as a recurring bout of insomnia.
At first, he finds solace in attending support group meetings for a wide range of diseases that he does not have, from testicular cancer to organic brain disease. Jack finds the easy and genuine liberation of emotions by the attendees at these sessions conducive to peaceful sleep, and attending these sessions quickly becomes an addiction. However, his newfound panacea is short-lived when he encounters Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter of "Wings of the Dove"), another 'faker' whose presence at his sessions serve as a reminder of his own insincerity. However, unlike Jack, Marla attends these sessions because they are 'cheaper than a movie, and there's free coffee'.
Unable to attain the peace of mind with another faker in the room, Jack slides back to his usual pointless routine of droning days and sleepless nights, cynical of his fate and lacking the will to change. However, this all changes when he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt of "Meet Joe Black"), an equally cynical man who sells soap made from human fat. This chance meeting with Tyler sets in motion a number of profound emotional and lifestyle changes in Jack, starting with an accidental explosion that destroys his trinket-filled apartment. With no place to stay, Jack crashes at Tyler's ramshackle house set in the midst of an industrial wasteland, and soon finds much in common with his host. Together, the newfound friends start 'Fight Club', a secret society where men find emotional release and self-actualization by beating each other to a pulp. However, this pugilistic underground organization is merely the first step in Tyler's master plan, a scheme that quickly evolves from small acts of vandalism and mischief into a terrorist-cult named Project Mayhem.
At its core, "Fight Club" is an insidious examination of how feelings of estrangement and discontent can sow the seeds for fascism, or how the principles of change management can be perverted. The feelings of powerlessness in the film's characters provide a ripe opportunity for a charismatic and loquacious leader like Tyler to be placed into a position of power. Tapping into their suppressed aggression with the illusion of collective empowerment, Tyler creates willing followers for his revolutionary schemes, as they find a false sense of individuality while paradoxically engaging in cult-like behavior.
One of the reasons why "Fight Club" is so effective in making its point is the way it tells the story. Throughout the film, the film talks to, not at, the audience, through its narrator Jack, and as he becomes drawn into the world of Tyler Durden, the audience is drawn in with him. The film begins with a number of witty reflections on Jack's life, which the audience takes at face value because we 'see' them on the screen-- in the language of persuasion, these introductory scenes would be called the 'yes set', aimed at gaining initial agreement. Enter Tyler, who spouts his cynical observations of the world and provides fuel for feelings of disenchantment-- these are the 'truisms', statements whose veracity may be debatable, but certainly sound reasonable, and further encourage consensus from the audience. Finally, Tyler moves into the 'suggestion' stage, where he offers a number of solutions to Jack's predicament, and though they may be morally repugnant, they are made much more palatable by the course of directed consensus.
Director David Fincher ("Seven" and "The Game") cajoles the audience further with a visually arresting style that includes unconventional close-ups, magic realism, non-linear stream-of-conscious storytelling, and stunning cinematography that gives the film an eerie otherworldly atmosphere, appropriate to the jaundiced world that the characters inhabit. The film's lively pacing then throws images and dialogue in a staccato fashion, bombarding your senses with ideas and concepts that are entertaining, thought-provoking, and sometimes even convincing. As a whole, Fincher's directing style is a perfect match for the source material-- unconventional, irreverent, edgy, and gritty.
"Fight Club" is also rounded out by a terrific ensemble of actors. Norton, who played a convincing Neo-Nazi skinhead in "American History X", does an Oscar-worthy turn as the film's sympathetic Everyman, brilliantly handling the emotional and physical requirements for his character's descent from white-collar yuppiedom to its brutal antithesis. Pitt, looking a little less pretty this time, excels as the cool and charismatic cult-figure that quickly dominates Jack's life. Bonham Carter, shedding the Merchant-Ivory baggage she is usually associated with, adapts the 'kinderwhore' look popularized by Hole in an edgy performance that serves as the yardstick for Jack's metamorphosis. Finally, Meat Loaf ("Spice World") has a memorable turn as a comically pathetic individual found in one of Jack's support groups who also falls under Tyler's spell.
However, if there is one complaint that could be leveled against "Fight Club", it would be the film's resolution, which remains faithful to the book. Though it is somewhat surprising, the 'big reveal' of "Fight Club" comes off as a 'big plot twist' for the sake of having a 'big plot twist'. In light of the buildup of intriguing ideas that comes before it, the ending of "Fight Club" fails to live up to its promise, both intellectually and emotionally. It cheats the audience with a plot element that seems more at home with the ubiquitous virtual reality movies that have appeared in theaters so far this year.
Judging from the trailer, "Fight Club" may seem to be an uninteresting film about a group of men pummeling each other for thrills, but that is merely scratching the surface. Underneath the MTV school of filmmaking visual flourishes and the uncompromising violence is a disturbing look at how easy it is, under the right conditions, for the ordinary man to be swayed into committing unspeakable of acts of violence, whether it be in the Balkans or your own backyard.