WFTB Score: 20/20
The plot: An insomniac’s chance meeting with the dangerously charismatic Tyler Durden changes his life in ways he couldn’t possibly imagine. The pair rediscover their dormant masculinity through the no-holds-barred Fight Club, but gathering an army to put the anti-capitalist Project Mayhem into action may prove a step too far.
First off, a health warning: if you haven’t yet seen Fight Club but think you might want to in the future, I’d either skip this review entirely or look at it one word at a time. Because it’s one of those films whose central ‘reveal’ is so crucial that it’s almost impossible not to mention it and still give an honest review. Anyway, you have been warned…
Our narrator (Ed Norton) – let’s call him Jack, since the DVD box does – has a pretty decent life on the surface: a well-paid if soulless job organising vehicle recalls (if it costs more to recall than to pay off victims, the car stays on sale) which allows him to fill his apartment with aspirational Ikea-type goods. But Jack can’t sleep, until he finds solace in a host of self-help groups for the terminally ill, or the emasculated men – including Meat Loaf’s Bob – in a testicular cancer group; and even then, his comfort is ruined by cadaverous Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), who has much the same idea. On one of his many soul-sapping flights, Jack meets up with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a soap salesman with radical ideas about life and others’ possessions; immediately afterwards, Jack’s apartment is destroyed, forcing him to seek out Tyler for shelter and drinks. At the end of the night, the pair end up brawling, which proves to be a revitalising experience and leads to the formation of Fight Club, an underground scene which replaces furniture as the defining element of Jack’s life. Meanwhile, Tyler hooks up with Marla and develops homework for his ever-increasing band of fighters, which turns into the deliberately disruptive Project Mayhem, spreading franchises across America as it grows. Jack becomes more tired, more confused, and more jealous of both Tyler and his favourite recruit, Angel Face (Jared Leto). As events escalate – with disastrous consequences for Bob – Jack begins to lose track of what Tyler is up to; and by the time he truly wakes up to what he’s doing, it’s too late to do anything about it.
Perhaps because they largely owe their existence to investors and product placement, relatively few films have dared to argue that ’modern life is rubbish’, and when they have, the alternative has always been to drop out, hippy-style (cf. American Beauty’s Lester Burnham). The option offered in Fight Club is striking: anarchic, destructive, irresponsible, exciting and utterly liberating. And you don’t have to condone the vandalism of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel to recognise its genius, rejecting an empty, celebrity-obsessed, furniture-buying world of soft, needy emasculation for the uncomplicated thrill of one-on-one violence. That Fight Club then grows into a structured anti-capitalist movement is an exhilarating idea – again, you don’t have to agree with it, but the film’s exploration of guerrilla terrorism is fascinating, and a breath of fresh air from an American film distributed by an American studio. Furthermore, unlike mush such as Swordfish, the film has only become more relevant since it came out, as celebrity guff has inexorably replaced proper news and banks/corporations have proved only too-willing to screw us all for money. Yes, the sight of collapsing buildings is unfortunate in the light of 9/11, but that’s neither Palahniuk nor Fincher’s fault.
And then there’s the reveal. To be honest, the first time I saw Fight Club, I was so caught up in Project Mayhem that when the twist came along, I thought it was faddish and unnecessary. However, watching it again (and again), I realise that the twist (I still don’t want to give it away, just in case) adds another level to the film. Though it very occasionally gets you asking ‘So how come…?’, Fincher carries the conceit off remarkably well, weaving clues beautifully into the narrative. He also marshals the film’s action in jolting, kinetic fashion, his camera venturing everywhere. Fight Club is so involving, and so cinematic, that you almost forget that the actors are performing, but the central performances are terrific: Norton’s intensity is perfectly suited to the role of the narrator and he is matched blow for blow by Pitt, who elsewhere goes over the top (see: Twelve Monkeys) and occasionally doesn’t try hard enough (see: Troy), but is a compelling, dark, twisted bundle of devilish energy here. Bonham Carter, an actress best known for mannered performances in English period pieces (until Harry Potter, anyway), is almost as much a revelation as chain-smoking Marla; Meat Loaf is surprisingly effective too. Put it all together and you have a bona fide modern classic – I even like the unforgivably arrogant ‘flashback humour‘ crack. Of course, there are those that say it’s all noise and no meaning, but it could be that these viewers are too caught up in their clothes, their cars and their mortgages to grasp what the film is suggesting. Personally, in a world where Nivea for Men can get a foothold on our supermarket shelves, Tyler’s reminder that we are not our jobs, nor the money in our bank accounts, is always welcome.
Fight Club isn’t perfect – it feels a bit trite that Jack is ‘saved’ by his love for Marla, and on occasions it’s as subtle as a blow to the head – but it gets its score because as far as I’m concerned it’s the most important film of the last twenty years, simply because it posits a radical alternative (whether you like it or not) to the modern Western ritual of work-buy-sleep, and does it in dazzling style. I know I haven’t gone quite as deep as I might have into Fight Club, but that’s because it’s an absolutely essential film which you must, must, must see for yourself. Just take an open mind in with you.