Published on August 5th, 2014 | by Clint Davis

Fight Club [1999]

Fight Club [1999] Clint Davis

Summary: One of the most unique pictures of the '90s, David Fincher's "Fight Club" introduces one of the great characters in recent film history. Sometimes it feels like style over substance but at its core is an anarchist's guide to consumerism and mental illness.


Damn Fine

User Rating: 4.6 (2 votes)

R  |  139 min.

Director: David Fincher

Screenplay: Jim Uhls (based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel)

Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter

Studio: 20th Century Fox  |  U.S. Box Office: $37,030,102 (#54 of 1999)

Fight Club - Insomniac Norton

Edward Norton as the narrator is a self-described insomniac at the film’s opening. But has a great IKEA couch.

“You’re not your fucking khakis.”

Anarchic, nihilistic and more than a bit subversive — Fight Club is as much a 21st century philosophy lesson as it is a psychologically challenging film with moments of pitch-black humor. More simply, this movie is what happens when a group of disenchanted young men are given some cameras and a $60 million budget.

I suppose I’m breaking the first rule of fight club by even writing this review; but by even wondering about the film, you’re breaking the first rule of Project Mayhem. So I guess we’re even.

When this movie hit theaters in October 1999, director David Fincher had already solidified himself as a master of neo-noir — more specifically of abrasive thrillers. After 1995’s Seven, which was the most disturbing crime thriller since The Silence of the Lambs, Fincher made the labyrinthine The Game starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn in 1997.

He used a bit of what made both of those pictures so memorable to craft Fight Club into a film that fits perfectly into his canon. The brooding, boiling tension of Seven and the intriguing mystery plus excitement of The Game blend perfectly into this film, while also allowing Fincher to try out some new tricks and completely mind-fuck the audience at times. After Fight Club, the director would interestingly dial his style back while making true-story pictures like 2007’s Zodiac and 2010’s The Social Network, arguably the two best movies of his career.

Fight Club - Bonham Carter

Helena Bonham Carter is heroin chic as the movie’s unlikely female lead.

For people—especially men—of my generation, Fight Club will always be a classic though. If you were an angry teenager, fed up with the choking standards of suburban life, Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden was like Socrates with a badass pair of shades and one hell of a jaw. This guy was James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause for a new batch of disenchanted males; he even had the red leather jacket.

Durden, a 30-year-old soap maker, is introduced to the movie’s audience, and its main character, about 30 minutes in. The unnamed protagonist in Fight Club, played by Edward Norton, is the prototypical everyman. His high-rise condo in an unnamed city (similar to the nondescript setting in Seven) is stocked with trendy furniture from numerous mail-order catalogs, while his closet is stocked with name-brands like Calvin Klein and DKNY, for what has shaped up to a “very respectable” wardrobe, as he tells Durden in one scene. Suddenly, his apartment explodes from an apparent gas leak, leaving him devoid of the comforts his material possessions had offered.

The narrator, as he’s named in the film’s credits, becomes friends with Durden after a chance meeting on an airplane, eventually moving into his dilapidated home on the outskirts of town. The pair form an underground fighting club where men meet up to beat the hell out of each other in a barely-lit concrete basement—because, as Durden asks, “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” As the fight club evolves into an anarchy ring called Project Mayhem, the narrator begins to regret his partnership with this volatile man.

Fight Club - Paper Street

Durden’s dilapidated house on Paper Street comes to symbolize the narrator’s descent into nihilism.

Pitt’s performance as Durden represents one of the high points of his long career. He’s manic, sinister, uncontrollable and also completely un-Hollywood. His look is awfully dated, he bathes in filthy water and exhibits some of the most self-destructive behavior ever captured in a character. Durden could easily come off as a cartoon character but it’s Pitt’s dead-serious portrayal that elevate his anarchic ramblings into sermons you can’t help but pay attention to. In a recent feature, Empire magazine named Durden the greatest movie character in history — not bad for a guy who considers himself just one of the “all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.”

Norton, who plays the straight man of Fight Club, is his usual dependable self as the audience’s surrogate here. After an extremely dynamic role in 1998’s brutal American History X, this performance is much more level but the actor still shows his character’s pent-up demons in a few memorable scenes. Aside from the two aforementioned movies, Norton would play in a few of my favorite pictures of the early 2000s including Frida, Red Dragon and Spike Lee’s soulful 25th Hour, before recently hooking up with director Wes Anderson for a couple of projects.

Fight Club - Durden

The philosophical Tyler Durden has been called the greatest movie character of all time by some.

Fincher has been one of my very favorite directors since the first time I saw Seven. Unlike many directors who deal in such dark subject matter, his films lend themselves to virtually unlimited repeated viewings, especially Fight Club.

When the film was originally released, I remember trailers depicting it as almost a fighting-action movie, leading to a lot of disappointment among mainstream audiences, including my 13-year-old self when I first watched it. With the director being an established name today, it would be much easier for 20th Century Fox to promote the movie appropriately, and for audiences to know what to expect (Fight Club‘s domestic box office gross fell about $26 million shy of budget).

The movie’s grimy look, shot perfectly by first-time cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, allows visual metaphors to appear in nearly every frame. When we first meet the narrator, his spotless white apartment and neat office show how well constructed, albeit soulless, his life is; after moving in with Tyler, it seems every scene takes place at night and the brown water pouring from their home’s taps signify his gradual loosening of the reigns.

Fight Club - fight scene

The movie’s fight scenes are so dimly lit they seem to exist in a primal world before light existed.

Helena Bonham Carter, the unlikely romantic (I use that term loosely) lead in Fight Club. She blends heroin chic with her signature gothic queen look for as unglamorous a female love interest as you’ll see. By the end of the picture, we realize she may be the only reliable voice we’ve heard in over two hours.

The philosophy that Fight Club preaches was perhaps ahead of its time. The members of Project Mayhem—all working class wage slaves—argue that they run the country despite the spoils going to a phantom upper class. These guys feel like the engine, maintenance and dining crew aboard the Titanic, forced to sink with a ship full of rich bastards who are onboard only for leisure. These men are like an extreme version of the Occupy Wall Street movement, armed to the teeth with homemade explosives.

Author Chuck Palahniuk, who penned the novel Fight Club in 1996, harbors a grim view of humanity in most of his books. In this adaptation, that attitude resonates in every bitter, sarcastic line—but this film is more worried about where society is headed. Screenwriter Jim Uhls, also a rookie, unleashes the novel’s vitriol into some outstanding narration from Norton and repeat-after-me orations from Pitt. However, I’ve always felt that Fight Club loses a ton of steam in the third act, after a surprising twist that effectively stuns the audience. After this great reveal, the movie becomes more conventional, feeling like a Hitchcock-inspired thriller with a bonafide romance story at its center.

Fight Club - Leto

The character Angel Face, played by a young Jared Leto, represents one of the disenchanted men that follow Durden.

The unsung heroes of Fight Club are the Los Angeles-based Dust Brothers, who provided the movie’s unsettling musical score. Underlying each scene are industrial synths and eerily calm drum loops that drone on for 10 minutes at a time. In my opinion, the Dust Brothers should have won the Oscar for Best Original Score in 2000, an award for which they weren’t even nominated. Incredible work, especially from the guys who produced Hanson’s “MMMBop,” arguably the last song Tyler Durden would have in his iPod.

Fight Club, was a fantastic way to end ’90s cinema, a decade when hungry new directors were finding exhilarating ways to tell familiar stories. In 1999, Sam Mendes showed us the ugly truth often buried inside white suburban walls in American Beauty, the Wachowskis introduced a fresh take on technology dependence in a dystopian future with The Matrix and Fincher blew the false sheen off of an entire culture of materialism and the advertised lifestyle in Fight Club.

In all three of those outstanding films, modern men were unwitting slaves until someone forced them to wake up and take a good look at their lives. “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars,” Durden says in his best speech. “But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

Check out Fight Club on Amazon.

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About the Author

Clint Davis is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based journalist who dropped out of film school to write news! Email him at TheClintDavis@gmail.com.

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