Released in the arguable peak year of a particularly turn-of-the-century form of social consumerism undercut by social discontent, Fight Club is uncommonly similar to fellow Class of 99-er The Matrix. Like the era-defining Wachowski sci-fi smorgasbord of high-flying kicks and high-falling ideas, David Fincher’s conniving would-be exercise in cinematic post-modernism is a startling technical showpiece well-versed in genre mechanics that curdles under the weight of its oppressive, over-baked interpretation of social anomie. Except, while The Matrix eventually gave in and realized it was merely an action film putting on airs, Fight Club, adapted by Jim Uhls from the book by Chuck Palahniuk, takes refuge in its pretentious vision of society until the very end. It would seem that the great, unfortunate secret of the cinematic year of 1999 is that a great many of its biggest hits are stunning visual showpieces hiding deeply incompatible or incomprehensible screenplays (it is no surprise then that the year’s best film, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, succeeds primarily because it is entirely about its visuals, rather than an attempt to marry those visuals to a needlessly over-baked narrative).
Fincher’s film is arguably even closer in philosophy, if not genre identity, to Class of 99 locker-mate American Beauty, a work that fills out but doesn’t conclude the trio (Matrix, Fight Club, and Beauty) of 1999 works that burst out of the gate with cinematic ambition shaping the future of cinema while also attempting to provide a certain critique to the decade they concluded. The similarities in perspective between Beauty and Fight Club are unmistakable: both fixate on modern males and viscerally take the society around that abstract modern male individual to task, lambasting modern corporatism for pacifying that male and forcing him to wither and grow old before his time.
In Fight Club, specifically, we open on a narrator (Edward Norton), like we did in American Beauty, although here he remains nameless. Both figures have a multitude of monologuing to do for us about how restrained and emasculated they feel by a society ready to tear them to bits by putting them in a middle-class suit and tie and forcing them to be a productive member of society. Soon enough, we meet Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a discontent with an even more active idea of rebellion who pushes and drives our narrator to increasingly act on his dismissal of everyday society. Durden posits a similar solution to Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty: reduce themselves to their individualist, lusty, fiery impulses of adolescence back when they were real men and not just boys in suits, or so they think. Here, our men do so by forming an impromptu fight club where men like them can strip their suits off and almost strangle one another with their ties, airing out their inner fantasies of brutality on each other.
Which proves to be less than enough for Durden, who coaxes our narrator further into life on the edge, rejecting normative living for a falling-apart abode that serves as an unapologetic form of passive rebellion against paying credit card debt and living in middle-class housing. Eventually, this brewing concoction of discontent and masculine bravado forms into an anarchist quest for crumbling buildings and society brought to its knees, with Durden leading a plot to destroy the Wall Streets of the world and show upper and middle-class Americans the errors of their ways.
A noble goal, but Fight Club follows American Beauty down the rabbit hole of black comedy only insofar as it can back-off and moralize to us with fire and brimstone in equal measure. Both films masquerade as comedies, certainly, and although American Beauty is more open-faced about its one-liners, neither successfully bridges the gap between self-serving sympathy and scathing social critique. To put it simply, Fight Club has trouble doubling back to critique itself, no matter how much the film’s defenders trumpet its self-satire. What emerges is a form of auto-erotic self-aggrandizement, the film accepting Durden’s vision conclusively and aggressively and positing no alternative to corporate consumerism other than adolescent individualism and a cult of unrestrained, barbaric masculinity. The film’s defenders labor on about the extent to which the film does actually put Durden in the cross-hairs, mocking him for his superficial put-downs of mainstream society, but Fincher was not in 1999 a mature enough filmmaker to bubble this self-critique up to the surface of his film, or even to hint at it at all. As with American Beauty, Fight Club’s anarchy is of the distinctly masculine, libertarian, American strain that has no room for social communication, community, or femininity. The film’s lone female character, played with energy and zeal by Helena Bonham Carter, remains a caricature of womanhood until the end, a tool for the men to use and abuse and throw away. If Fight Club desperately wants to be a black comedy, it needs to criticize itself too, but it does not know the gift of humility.
The comedy suffers spectacularly under Fincher’s uncommonly bleak directorial hand, so much so that it becomes wishful thinking to find anything ironic in the film at all. Now, Kubrick pulled off this trick of visually constructing a disturbed, nihilist thriller while secretly masquerading as a comedy in Dr. Strangelove, an obvious comparison point for the likes of Fincher, but Fincher is no Kubrick. The wonderful audio-visual irony of Strangelove, a film pretending to be a grimly sober Cold War thriller only to reveal a sly, malevolent strain of comedy underneath, never finds a home in Fight Club, a work that seems to take itself so seriously and with such sobriety that any intended humor falls to the wayside long before the first meeting of the titular beat-down bro-fest.
To be clear, the film is of merit; it simply isn’t the merit the film recognizes. Fincher is not a particularly playful director – a playfulness desperately required by the film and a playfulness even Kubrick at his best could concoct when he needed to, even if it hurt him to do so. But Fincher is extremely skilled at the basic nuts-and-bolts thriller craft of filmmaking. He runs a tight ship, in other words, and on this level, the film is often impeccable. James Haygood’s editing is cruelly efficient, and Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography experiments with contrast and color like nobody’s business, both of which serve to make Fight Club an inordinately sharp looking film to say the least. Fincher’s music video background certainly helps him kick-start the film from time to time, almost long enough that we get high from the vapors of its ruthlessly kinetic motor and almost start to believe Durden’s too-cool-for-school ambitions.
Fight Club, in fact, isn’t simply competent craft but invigorating craft to the point where the craft becomes its own abstract reward; we begin to understand the editing mechanisms as Machiavellian, the sound mixing as brilliant and trenchant, the vertiginous camera as a diabolical treat that rushes forth with an adolescent, vigorous rush of motion, energy, and raw shape and sound. There is an inordinate amount of filmmaking fireworks on display in Fight Club, explosively exciting as pure filmmaking. As an experimental piece of abstraction, Fight Club has a lot to say about cinema. It feels like a music video, in other words, and a great music video is nothing to mock. If it is a music video that is.
Fight Club is not a music video, however, and unlike The Matrix, it never has the good grace to accept itself for what it is. It desperately wishes to expound upon a story, characters, and satire, to cram them down our throats, and it uses unrestrained and often forward-thinking style to accomplish this feat. It is style that convinces us of a worldview the film’s defenders insist the film despises. It is style that is so convincing, in fact, we can’t help but believe Durden, as if he had taken control of the film. Whether or not the film intends to convince of this attitude is irrelevant in light of the fact that it does end up convincing us of this viewpoint. A great many reviewers claim that this is the point, that it is mocking us for supporting Durden and intends to reveal the ways in which we shouldn’t support Durden. But intent is a lazy argument to string a film review on.
If in fact Fight Club is a Verhoeven-esque satire-by-way-of-ruthless-copy exercise, Fincher’s film reveals none of the playful, subtle ways in which Verhoeven over-exaggerates his genre mechanisms to transform his films beyond simple recreation of a genre and into satire of a genre. Getting so high off the vapors of style, as with any vapors, eventually requires you to let a little air in. Fincher, for all his strengths, is a director who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “air”, or subtlety, or, really, subtext. Any argument that Fight Club defeats Durden’s deranged libertarianism cannot unmoor itself from Fincher’s positively ecstatic attitude toward Durden’s bravura anarchism. Any argument that the film engenders a critique of Durden’s self-righteous nihilism diffuses in light of its fetishistic appreciation of the macho swagger and corrupted “liberating” violence Durden preaches as almost Biblically transcendent to supposedly-emasculating social-acquiescence. If his film wishes to critique Durden, it ends up becoming him.