There’s a lot of talk these days about the plight of disaffected young men faced with political volatility, economic uncertainty and social hopelessness. Such men, possibly suffering mental illness and a lack of romantic attention, risk falling victim to radicalization or even violence. This topic loomed large in much of the discussion about the recent Joker movie, even if it ultimately wasn’t the primary topic of the film itself. Fight Club was released in 1999, and is also about sad and disaffected young men — who did indeed turn to radicalization and violence as a rebellion.
The difference is that Fight Club arrived at a time of relative peace and economic prosperity, and concerned a main character who wasn’t lacking in social or career opportunities. If anything, David Fincher’s film shows that no matter the circumstances, some men are going to find a reason to get angry and violent.
Fight Club revolves around an unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton) exists as a depressive insomniac living in an unnamed city who describes his life in deadpan voiceover. Working what seems to be a well-paying office job but miserable at it, Norton’s character starts crashing support groups for survivors of testicular cancer and other diseases, just so he might feel something. There, he meets Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), who’s pulling the same con.
Twenty minutes into Fight Club, The Narrator meets the charismatic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt.) After The Narrator’s apartment blows up, the two end up living together, and they establish the fight club of the title — an underground boxing/MMA gathering where men, dissatisfied with their empty everyday lives and the suffocating times, can beat one another to a bloody pulp. The friendship and the fight club seem to help the Narrator find purpose, but the club soon graduates into much higher-scale destruction.
This all leads up to the famous, shocking, very-’90s cinema twist: The Narrator and Tyler Durden are, in fact, one and the same, with Durden essentially operating as the Narrator’s id while acting out all of his worst sexual, violent, and revolutionary impulses. After The Narrator becomes disillusioned with this, he shoots himself in the head, killing the Durden persona; he and Marla then watch as all of the buildings in the city blow up to the tune of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind.” It’s a visual that’s somewhat jarring for a film that came out less than two years before the 9/11 attacks.
Like that year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, American Beauty, Fight Club is another 1999 movie that’s plot would have resolved itself in the first ten minutes if the protagonist had sought much-needed treatment for depression. (The Narrator does, early on, go to a doctor who unhelpfully suggests “valerian root, and some exercise.”)
Written by Jim Uhls and adapted from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club arrived at the end of the 1990s, and was clearly birthed by many of the cinematic and cultural trends of the time period. First off, there’s a huge amount of concern about conformity and selling out.
While America would two years later be scared about war, terrorism and recession, back in 1999 there was much concern about whether the expensive furniture in one’s apartment said something bad about them. Tyler Durden himself was a more extreme version of a certain type of character prevalent in the movies at the time, much like Ethan Hawke’s Troy in Reality Bites — the one guy willing to bluntly call out the bullshit of a world in which everyone but him has sold out. Indeed, for a time in the ’90s, a character telling their boss to shove it was the signature moment of cinematic triumph.
Yes, much of what Tyler Durden says in the film comes across to modern ears as faux-profound gobbledygook, the kind of nonsense sloganeering that would have fit better on a dorm room poster than coming out of a real person’s mouth. And the overarching spirit of the film, much like a lot of culture in the late ’90s, was about everything being extreme.
That said, Fight Club is a filmmaking marvel, moving with major momentum and visual panache; Fincher would make better films later on, but this was a clear benchmark for him. The performances are all strong as well, with Pitt and Norton both doing some of their best work up to that point. Bonham-Carter, best known up until then for British costume dramas, was also a standout as the wild character who says things like “I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school.” The film also pulses with an electronic industrial score by ’90s perennials The Dust Brothers.
Fight Club was actually a box office flop at the time of its release, and received only one Oscar nomination (for Sound Editing, which it lost to The Matrix.), but it long had a vocal and loyal cult of fans, and was a popular seller once the DVD era took off.
The movie’s politics are scattershot enough that filmgoers of all ideologies have taken messages from it. Tyler Durden, for all of his class warfare talk, denunciations of corporations, as well as large and small acts of undermining the rich, could be viewed as a Marxist revolutionary.
Yet, the film’s implication that violence is the one true manifestation of masculinity has also won it some fans on the right, and even the alt-right. And of course, like everything from Wall Street to Wolf of Wall Street, Fight Club has been misinterpreted by those who believe the film itself is an endorsement of everything that happens in it. No, David Fincher was not actively endorsing underground fighting, nor full-on terrorism.
Fight Club was very much of its time, but it also showed that feelings of anger, alienation, and violence among men were a problem long before today.