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From the DVD Shelf: Fight Club (1999)

September 5th, 2011
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After re-watching David Fincher’s 1995 film Se7en (click here for my review), I couldn’t resist taking another look back at Fight Club.  As with Se7en, I had seen Fight Club only once before.  I’d really enjoyed it, but because of the violence and the extraordinarily down-beat tone, I’d never been driven to revisit it.

The first thing that struck me upon re-watching the film is that, while the film is just as violent and anti-social as I’d remembered, it’s also incredibly funny.  Maybe my shock at the brutal, casual violence that runs through the film had blinded me to this when I first saw it, or maybe I’d just forgotten.  But Fight Club is very, very funny.  Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk (which I really need to read one of these days), the script by Jim Uhls (which was apparently rewritten by an uncredited Andrew Kevin Walker, who also wrote Se7en) is very sharp.  Fight Club is a tough, take-no-prisoners social satire.  The film has quite a lot to say about our commercial society, and the way advertising holds so many of us in its thrall.  (I love the pan, in the film, of the main character’s apartment, when we can suddenly see on-screen the labels for each purchased-from-a-magazine item of furniture.)

Through the character of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the audience is swept along in the appeal of this society-rejecting rebel.  Tyler has abandoned commercialism and the accepted ideals of how we should be living our life.  Rather than a fancy, well-furnished apartment, he prefers to live in squalor in an abandoned, decrepit building.  When he discovers this do-what-you-want, live-how-you-want lifestyle, Edward Norton’s character (and, by extension, the audience) finds it to be incredibly freeing.  With no one living within a mile of him and Tyler, the two can do whatever they want, whether that’s hitting broken bottles with golf clubs or beating the snot out of one another.

The film — and Tyler — slowly drags Edward Norton and the audience along into weirder and weirder places.  At first, the idea of a fight club — where men find themselves by engaging in brutal one-on-one fistfights — might be horrifying.  But Tyler — happy, sexy, joyous Brad Pitt — is able to sell it to Edward Norton’s character, and to us, as a way to throw off the smothering curtain of “civilized” behavior.  There’s an appeal there that Norton’s character grabs ahold of with both arms, and which the audience can understand.

The fun of the film, of course, is the way Tyler Durden’s behavior eventually causes the viewer to question, and perhaps (or maybe I should write “hopefully”) ultimately reject his philosophies and his actions.  The first half of the film is all about building up Tyler Durden as an idealized man, and then the second half if about pushing us to wonder whether we really do agree with and admire this man.  When does one start to question?  When it becomes obvious that he steals everything he owns?  When he begins sending the fight club participants out on missions of mischief/terror?  When he threatens to shoot an unfortunate convenience store clerk?  Or when his ultimate plan to blow up buildings stands revealed?

Fight Club is magnificently well-directed and put together.  The visual effects, the score, the editing, all come together in a powerhouse of a complete vision, guided by the steady hand of David Fincher.  As insane as this might sound, the early going of Fight Club really reminded me of Annie Hall. Obviously not in content or tone, but in the film’s joyous playfulness with the storytelling.  The film is constantly messing around with how the narrative unfolds, bouncing around in time, switching perspectives, throwing in animation, chirons & captions, imaginary dream-quests, and much more.  (One of my favorite bits is when Tyler breaks the fourth wall and points out, to the audience, the “cigarette burns” in the film — the little dots that let the theatre projectionist know that it’s time to change reels.)  From one scene to the next, one never knows what to expect, and I absolutely adore the creativity and energy on display, as a result, in every frame of the film.  It’s all strung together by Edward Norton’s wonderfully dry, witty narration, which keeps the film tightly focused on this one every-man’s spiritual struggles and quest to find himself in the crazy, hopeless world in which he lives.

I didn’t realize, until I clicked on imdb in order to find his character’s name, that the main character (played by Edward Norton) actually HAS no name!  That’s a marvelous bit of slight-of-hand, and it’s so perfect with where the film goes that I am somewhat staggered by the genius of it.  (My assumption is that this credit must go, of course, to Chuck Palahniuk’s original novel.)  But with or without a character name, I don’t think Edward Norton has ever been better than he is in this film.  He’s able to convey the sort of genial, schlubby, this-could-be-you every-man quality that makes his story a universal one.  But he’s also able to portray, and make real, the character’s ferocity and his perhaps-madness, as he allows Tyler Durden to change him into a man who gets his kicks from brawling in a basement several times a week.  This character runs the gamut of emotion and likability, and Mr. Norton makes it all look easy.

Equally phenomenal is Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden.  Mr. Pitt has had an extraordinarily fruitful series of collaborations with David Fincher (appearing, in addition to this film, in Se7en and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), but this is the one to beat.  He pours every ounce of his charisma, and his craziness, into Tyler.  We can easily understand why men are drawn to follow Tyler into his fight clubs and, later, into his “Project Mayhem,” and the way Mr. Pitt dances gleefully along the razor’s edge line between Tyler’s being the only sane man on the planet OR being a total sociopath, is a delight to watch.  Every moment that he is on-screen, one cannot look away from his performance.

We also cannot overlook Helena Bonham Carter, as the pretty-crazy-herself woman, Marla, bouncing between these two men.  This is a fierce, brave performance.  Right from the moment we first meet her, Ms. Bonham Carter’s Marla is alive with a dangerous, mysterious electricity.  We don’t, at first, understand her at all — but, like Edward Norton’s character, we find ourselves drawn to try.  Despite her seeming, at first, as an incredibly weird, outlandish character, as the story unfolds Marla turns out to be far more understandably human than either Tyler Durden or Edward Norton’s character.  It’s a testament to the smart script, and to Ms. Bonham Carter’s nuanced performance, that this is so.

And, as with Se7en (the David Fincher-directed film that I reviewed on Monday), the ending of Fight Club remains a knock-out.  (As I did with Se7en, I will tread carefully here, to avoid spoiling the film for any newbies.)  The ending really threw me for a loop when I first saw the film and, no surprise, it’s a totally different experience watching Fight Club when you know where the story winds up.  But I found the experience of watching Fight Club even more exhilarating now that I knew the ending.  It’s great fun to see all the little details, all the little grace notes, that work so perfectly with what eventually happens.  There are so many scenes that play so differently — but still so effectively — now that I know the ending.  It is to the filmmakers’ credit that the clock-work-like precision of the film’s narrative stands up to repeated viewings.  If anything, I must say that I almost enjoy the film MORE knowing the ending, and that’s a pretty incredible (and rare) thing.

I suspect there are many of you out there who have let the shock value of the film’s premise (men creating underground clubs where they viciously fight one another) prevent you from sampling this film.  To be sure, this is not a film for everyone.  While it’s nowhere near as gruesome and unremittingly bleak as Se7en, Fight Club is still a very tough film.  There’s a lot of pretty brutal fighting to be had, and the film’s harsh anti-societal streak might be unsettling to some.  But I must say that on this second viewing I pretty much loved every second of the movie.  The energy and creativity on-screen in every shot was mind-boggling, and I found the film’s narrative and characters to be completely compelling and engaging.  The film is funny and nasty, it’s vicious and dirty and also somehow sweet, it’s sad and it’s hilarious.  It’s well-worth it’s “cult” reputation, and if you’ve enjoyed some of David Fincher’s recent, more-mainstream films, this earlier, dynamite-fueled work is well-worth your time.

(I also want to note that there is a brilliant, hilarious joke in the blu-ray edition’s menu screen that is one of my favorite things ever.  Whoever came up with the idea deserves a huge raise.  Well done.)

Reviews of other David Fincher films: Se7en (1995), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), The Social Network (2010).

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