Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Fight Club" (1999)

Starring Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter
Written by Jim Uhls
Directed by David Fincher

As I mentioned in my review of "Office Space" a few minutes ago, I saw "Fight Club" as part of a double feature at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.  Great little place, really.  Anyway, at first glance, I said this might seem like an odd pairing, but the two films sort of tackle similar themes in very, very different ways. 

"Fight Club," an adaptation of the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, comes to the screen under the guidance of uber-talented director David Fincher.  What begins as a sort of darkly comic exploration of corporate culture and blind consumerism running rampant in eventually turns into a twisted psychological thriller of near-apocalyptic proportions.   The film could easily collapse under its own weight, but it's Fincher's incredible sense of pace and vision that keeps the whole thing on track. 

Edward Norton is your typical office drone, working a job he cares little about so that he can buy things that he feels are important.  He narrates the film with a dry wit, talking about how he needs to acquire just the right sofa to be "complete" as a person.  His refrigerator is full of condiments, but no real food - just like himself, it's all dressing with no substance.  One day, on a business trip he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), an eccentric soap maker who tries to teach him that the things he holds important are really just worthless.  "The things you own," Tyler says, "end up owning you."

Not long after, with his apartment destroyed in an explosion, he has to move in with Durden, who lives in a rundown house half a mile from nowhere.  In the midst of all this, to help treat his insomnia, he goes to 12-step meetings and pretends to have all kinds of maladies from tuberculosis to testicular cancer just so he can find emotional release and cry, the only thing that will allow him to sleep at night.  But he can't do that with another "faker" around, and when a trashy, damaged woman named Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) enters the picture, he suddenly can't sleep again. 

But he soon finds himself a new release: Fight Club.  Created by Tyler, it's a place where men of a certain ilk can come and beat the shit out of each other, finding emotional catharsis in the pain, finding their "true selves", for as Tyler says, "How much can you really know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?"  At first, this seems like a good situation for our narrator.  He begins to break away from the drudgery of work, away from his dependency on things, as Tyler's influence shapes and molds him bit by bit.  Occasionally, Marla re-enters the picture, stirring up chaos and threatening to bring Tyler's well-laid plans to a screeching halt.  What are those plans?  They slowly become clear, as does the nature of the relationship between the three main characters, with implications that go far beyond simple mischief.  Tyler is planning something massive, something that could have serious, disastrous consequences for the modern way of life.  He's not just recruiting disenfranchised men to a fight club, he's building an army.  What for?

Can he be stopped?

...Should he be?

"Fight Club" is a fantastic film, another winner in Fincher's excellent filmography.  Brad Pitt turns in a fantastic performance as Tyler Durden.  He's witty and charismatic, but he can turn sinister on a dime, imbuing the character with a frightening determination and a sense of complete moral authority.  He's a character that believes in what he's doing, without question, and without inhibition, which makes him extremely dangerous.  And yet, there's a certain glee to the character throughout much of the film, before we realize his true motivations and his true nature, that makes him irresistible. 

The third-act twist regarding just who Tyler Durden is, is also a lot of fun.  I remember being totally blown away by it the first time I saw the movie.  With each new viewing, it becomes more and more obvious to me, seeing the clues strewn throughout the rest of the movie, but that only makes it more fascinating.  It's the little editing tricks here or there, a line of dialogue that seems totally unimportant, and yet, there it is.  And at just the right moments during the revelation, Fincher juxtaposes scenes from earlier in the film with the "reality" of those moments, which is creepy and unsettling.

"Fight Club" explores the suffocating corporate structure of our consumer-driven world, allowing its characters to exist in a fantasy world where they can break away from this empty, damning existence.  But there's a price for doing so.  He rejects everything he's been brought up to believe will make him happy, but has actually been killing him slowly throughout his supposed "life."  But as he is supposedly becoming more "free," he's wasting away as Tyler's plans and methods go too far.  Note how Norton's physical condition deteriorates throughout the film, while Tyler always seems to look more glamorous.  Ultimately, "Fight Club" finds something of a hopeful resolution after he finds a happy middle-ground between the de-humanizing overzealousness of Tyler and the dead, status-obsessed office drone he had been before.

We're left to wonder the consequences of Tyler's actions at the end of the film.  Sure, Norton is in a better place, but the final moments of the film depict what could easily be a catastrophic event.  Will chaos break out across the United States?  Tyler's army has effectively upended the financial system, if what we're led to believe about his plan is true.  It's frustrating in the sense that my mind wishes there were a more concrete resolution, but also a ballsy move on Fincher's part.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that I probably shouldn't know what happened.  There's such a thing as too much information.  It's not like the end of "Inception," which demanded concrete resolution (and frustratingly ignored that fact).  "Fight Club" functions differently.

Great performances, lots of dark wit and a fantastic visual style make "Fight Club" a first-rate flick.  Controversial, sure.  But hey, controversy is good for spurring discussion.

See Also:
Office Space