Re-Entering Fight Club

Warning: Enter at your own caution. This essay makes no attempt to conceal the plot’s twist.

It’s practically a commonplace among film buffs to say that Fight Club wouldn’t have been made after 9/11. At the very least, the ending would have had to be changed: gone would be that unflinching shot of financial towers collapsing one after another like sandcastles. Certainly today, after the terrible bombing in Boston, no major distributor would touch it as it is. Re-entering David Fincher’s uncompromising late-nineties satire in the second decade of the twenty-first century reveals a multiplicity of dangers in the text.

Even discounting the climactic act of domestic terrorism, Fight Club relentlessly tries to rub the complacent mainstream viewer the wrong way, while, perhaps more dangerously, stroking the disillusioned and disaffected. At one point, the narrator (Edward Norton) indirectly threatens his boss with shooting up his office. Modern masculinity is ridiculed. Materialist consumption and its epitomes, such as the IKEA catalogue, are mocked and denigrated. The film makes a joke out of pissing (and worse) in the food of bourgeois diners, or splicing single frames of pornography into family films, but then, in one of the final frames, the film turns the joke on us. The film flashes, to use Tyler Durden’s (Brad Pitt) words, “A nice, big cock.” Whose soup is Fincher pissing in?

I would place Fight Club among a group of brilliantly subversive films that are potentially dangerous if misread. Other such films that come immediately to mind are A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Taxi Driver (1976). When I was in high school, Fight Club was one of the coolest films around. Inevitably, when talking movies at a party, some jock would try to impress everyone by explaining how big a fan he was of Fight Club, and would follow things up by saying how awesome Tyler Durden is, and that he wanted to start his own fight club. Wait, I shouldn’t blame the jock. It might have been me talking. Should we empathize at all with the violent hooligan and rapist, Alex, who is inhumanely conditioned by the correctional system? Is Travis Bickle a saviour, or a controlling sociopath? Is Tyler Durden a charismatic, enlightened rebel or a fascist leader? The brilliance and danger of these films is their refusal to provide an easy answer.

The spectre of fascism is a perfect example of a dangerous element in Fight Club. No one less than the late, great Roger Ebert believed Fight Club to be reprehensibly fascist. Others I’ve talked to seem, at least initially, to want to join the ranks of Durden’s blackshirts, whether for the fun of fighting and mischief, or because they sympathize with Durden’s campaign against American corporate capitalism. I believe the film is ultimately a critique of the fascist revolution against our complacent, consumer-based society it portrays, but the difficulty is that the film stares the revolution in the face. Fascism is appealing. That’s a dark secret many of us think but fewer admit—which is understandable in the wake of the many atrocities fascism perpetrated in the twentieth century. What the film demonstrates, though, is that the idea of following a charismatic leader in forcefully remaking society is seductive, especially for angry, capable young men disenfranchised by that society. This can be seen right now in Europe, in the wake of one debt crisis after another and startling levels of unemployment, but it is also manifesting itself in the U.S. and Canada as regular people continue to feel the impact of the Great Recession caused by greedy, and still rich, financial institutions.

Fight Club punches a raw nerve, perhaps now more than ever. It is dangerous because although it openly condemns mainstream society, its warnings against the radical alternatives are subtler. The film’s shocking twist, that Tyler Durden is actually a figment of the narrator’s mind, is not only one of the best twists ever (because the film is even richer and more rewarding on repeat viewings), but it also exposes that forceful rebel to be a dark product of the narrator’s anxieties and discontents. Thus, fascism is an initially appealing but ultimately destructive fantasy. Late capitalism’s Dr. Jekyll may have serious issues, but the solution is not Mr. Hyde.

Fight Club (USA/Germany, 1999)

Directed by David Fincher; screenplay by Jim Uhls, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk; starring Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Jared Leto, and Meat Loaf.