Cinema as an art form is very easily affected by the state of mind of the society. Be that mindless action films of the 80’s or CGI-influenced grandiose disaster films, it is obvious how films reflect actual trends of society. One can retrace all those trends by simple watching the films of corresponding eras.
That being said, it is extremely rare when a film shows the state of actual society. These films are not shaped by the era during which they were filmed but they ARE that exact replica of the era. One doesn’t need to analyze it, but to watch and digest and he will know everything there is to know about said period of time. There are only a handful of films that carry that kind of power. FIGHT CLUB is one of them.
I mean, how specifically can you define it? Made at the end of the 90’s, based on quirky bestseller, FIGHT CLUB marked a pinnacle and a definitive answer to the cinema of that period. Nihilistic, anarchist, anti-establishment, revolutionary, misogynistic, sadistic, masochistic, and most of all completely insane, this film offers a rare glimpse into society’s trouble to cope with the changes that had happened in the minds of characters. In the era when masculinity was reduced to staggeringly low levels came Tyler Durden who took those “poor, emasculated” pre-middle age males and gave them a purpose, a direction, vector to follow.
Were the events that happened in the film impossible? I don’t think so. Radicalization of minds has happened thousands of times throughout human history and to this date strong people use it on weak masses and societies by employing politically charged arguments, scare tactics, suppression and at times even passive aggressive manipulations. And one does not need to have a degree in sociology to see how some people bend rhetoric to gather people into a seriously organized enterprises preying on weaknesses and prejudices of common folk, be that say to restore white supremacy, revert global warming or rally to make Avengers Endgame most watched movie. And while the intentions and end results vary tremendously main tactics are still the same.
One might argue that Tyler Durden’s of real world are scheming bastards that only want to gain power and control of the masses. However, what people tend to forget is that power and control are not taken but given to someone. Men gave power to Tyler Durden, thus there was a need for Tyler Durden to appear. Just like he appeared in the life of Narrator. He was there for a reason. And people now appearing to headline modern and historical movements ALL were the results of a need of masses to have them. Revolutions never happen by one person.
“We are a generation of men raised by women,” says Tyler Durden and in one sentence sums up everything you need to know about his scare tactic. After all what could be more menacing for a man than being emasculated?
But this all is not why I actually think it is one of the greatest films ever made. Here’s why:
To understand the genius of David Fincher you have to imagine the risks he has taken casting Edward Norton and Brad Pitt as main characters in the film. Just look at their careers prior to the film and you will see their characters as complete opposites to what they have played before.
Norton was coming off playing cheating card player in ROUNDERS, young and ambitious lawyer in THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLINT and neo-Nazi convicted murderer in AMERICAN HISTORY X. He was cast to play the Narrator – emasculated, pathetic, insomniac coward. Brad Pitt on the other hand was just recovering from SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET and MEET JOE BLACK. And let’s not forget he was in LEGENDS OF THE FALL. All to play a psychopathic and charismatic flashy character.
How could this actually work? If anything, the roles should have been shifted, isn’t it? Pitt playing the role of weak Narrator and Norton getting the part of revolutionary Durden. And yet it did work. By miscasting the roles Fincher gave both actors a chance to shine through their characters and shine they did. Norton is never going to be remembered for his extremely visceral performance in AMERICAN HISTORY X and Pitt was no longer a melodramatic actor making women’s heart melt with his smug face.
And the way the roles have actually penetrated Norton and Pitt can be even seen to this day. If you take a close look at roles Pitt performed since you can almost certainly trace certain Durden-esque look in every single character of him. Be that gypsy boxer in SNATCH or Achilles in TROY of Lt. Aldo Raine in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS all the way to Cliff Booth in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.
Last but not the least, WHO else could have played enigmatic, deranged, chain-smoking, narcissistic, dominant, maniac Marla Singer but Helena Bonham Carter? I dare you, just give me one name. Can’t do it, can you now?
Fincher was not new to film scene prior to FIGHT CLUB. By that time, he has already made a name for himself in highly underrated ALIEN 3, mind-blowing SEVEN and atmospheric THE GAME, but it is that during FIGHT CLUB he truly started embracing his tone and for the first time employed his characteristic cinematic style to full extent.
Film is underexposed on purpose. Dark and dirty interiors of bar basement reflect perfectly with the undertones of the film and mind of the main characters. It is only in this environment could have they been developed. Unlike sterile and bright environments of everyday life, Fight Club exists in greasy corners full with asbestos and rust. The Narrator gets exposed to it when he moves into Durden’s “house” and suddenly all his world changes, so does it for us. Contrast of white collared, ironed, button-down shirt in daytime with naked sweaty bruised and blood-stained body of Narrator at night creates all the shift in the reality both for hero and for viewer.
Fincher also employs a lot of cuts, unlike his previous films. Mainly, to keep the pacing intact. Since the film is mostly based on short vignettes of sort and deep philosophical musings, it is crucial to keep the flow of the film live before viewer falls asleep. Combined with voiceover narration, this creates a certain magic that stays with the viewer until the credits roll.
FIGHT CLUB also marks first time Fincher dives into an unconventional synth-dance soundtrack. He will later employ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for that, but in this film, he uses The Dust Brother’s deep base techno tunes to highlight the quirkiness of the subject matter. Instead of using a huge orchestra we have a repeating beat that sounds more like a heart beat amplified through your eardrums when you are out of your breath. Which let’s face it, is all you can hear when you are in a fight.
I am keeping best for the last, ain’t I? Where I think FIGHT CLUB truly shines and completely explodes my mind is the writing. And it is more evident if you have actually spent time and read the book by Chuck Palahniuk. And in the retrospective, you will find out that screenwriter Jim Uhls and Fincher did almost an impossible job turning all the weirdness, craziness and nihilism of the book into a film that is not a single drop worse than source material.
And it’s a tremendous undertaking, I will tell you. Book is in essence a collection of vignettes, short essays, anecdotes and musings, weird trivia full with negativism and pure raw nihilism.
One the first things that film does is giving narration more streamlined look instead of constant shift in timeline and flashbacks that book has. Book of course had it to mess up the perception even further, but in the film, we already are given enough to hold to, so these jumps, while still there, are kept to minimum. And when they happen, they actually have the biggest impact.
Film also has a tremendous task to condense the book to fit the timeline. Since the conversations and musings have to be cut short. But how to actually deliver the same message with less words and still stay loyal to source material? It is no easy task and screenwriters achieve a tremendous success in this. It took almost a year to write several drafts and this was the reason.
Fincher also makes a huge effort to keep the plot surprising and the expectation of the twist to the minimum. However, it is not totally unexpected. It’s not like film doesn’t throw us hints and winks throughout. It’s that so many things are happening that viewer decides to ignore all the clues from his mind. Fincher builds suspense through witty editing and pacing and when it happens it is as surprising to us as it is to the characters. In my mind only one other film did better job that. It was THE SIXTH SENSE.
Film has a different ending than the book. And while book version is pretty messed up and freaking insane even by the subject matter standards, I do not think it would have looked well on the big screen. Fincher takes a step from source here and gives his own ending, which surprisingly fits very well with the story that he is telling. Which taking into account what FIGHT CLUB is about leads to question – can two endings exist for one same story at the same time?
In the end, FIGHT CLUB might have been a go-to movie for people who grew up in that era but it’s magic is undoubtedly lying in the transcendence of the subject matter. And something tells me this film will be remembered and revisited long after you and I are gone.