A complex, confused look at life in late-’90s America, David Fincher’s blood-black comedy Fight Club remains one of the most divisive pictures of the past 20 years. Reviled by undiscerning critics upon its release as a hateful celebration of anarchism, the film has over the years gained a passionate cult of mostly male viewers who have gotten it equally wrong. There is nihilism, violence, and anarchy in Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s cult novel about a nameless narrator (Edward Norton) who falls out of his suffocating job into a fighting ring and eventual terrorist organization run by the garish Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). But it’s all part of the film’s angry, despairing satire of a culture so overwhelmed with materialism and greed the only response is to burn the whole thing down and start over from scratch.
Norton’s protagonist, suffering from insomnia caused by unhappiness over his materialist lifestyle (his apartment is presented in the style of an IKEA catalogue, one of Fincher’s earliest and most effective bits of artful digital trickery), begins the film by finding solace through support groups for ailments he doesn’t have. Attending groups for testicular cancer patients, alcoholics, and survivors of incest allows Norton to have people really listen to him rather than just “wait for their turn to talk.” It’s his escape from his soul-crushing corporate job (a risk calculator for a major automobile manufacturer), but it’s a false one because it’s a lie. He finds a more seemingly genuine escape in Durden, whom he meets on an airplane and goes to live with after his apartment burns down.
Norton’s character and the tackily dressed Durden, who attacks mainstream values by splicing porn footage into children’s films and selling women’s liposuction fat back to them in boutique soaps, form the underground “Fight Club,” where men go to beat the shit out of each other. It’s a total boy’s club, which explains why Fight Club has so appealed to a certain strand of hyper-masculine men who don’t understand that Fincher, Palahniuk, and screenwriter Jim Uhls are making fun of them. Fight Club never hides the fact that the club and its terrorist offshoot, Project Mayhem, are just more false support groups, nor does it shy away from the fact that its members are mindless, droning idiots. Though the film’s big plot twist doesn’t make much narrative sense, it does make explicit that Durden is just a literal manifestation of a ridiculous male fantasy—a fantasy every bit as manufactured as the desire for a big-screen TV or yin-yang-shaped coffee table. (Much of the brilliance of Pitt’s performance is in how he turns his absurdly chiseled physique into a wild, scary joke.) Fight Club is not the answer.
So, what is? Well, love, for starters, though of a particularly disturbed sort. If Fight Club has a heart (and I think it just might), it’s in the relationship between Norton and Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), a fellow support-group faker who falls in with Durden. The girl is all kinds of damaged, but there’s a sick sweetness to her hate-fuck romance with Norton, something sort of nasty and real among all of contemporary life’s distancing messages and mediation. If Fight Club falters somewhat by diagnosing a problem while dismissing all the solutions, there’s nonetheless a warped but very real sense of hope in its final image of a boy and girl holding hands while the world collapses around them. Fight Club is funny, scary, messy, and imperfect, and there’s a reason it continues to endure. It met us at a very strange time in our lives.