I am Jack’s Desire to Rewatch this Movie

Fight Club

David Fincher is a brilliant director. I saw Fight Club in theaters (more than once) and then watched it a few times on video before finally and I would legitimately think there were few, other than Fincher, who could have brought that movie to screens. It’s a weird book, although not necessarily unfilmable, but taking the story and making it into something actually worth watching was another matter. I don’t think most directors could have seen the potential in the story to do something as weird and interesting and out there as Fincher’s vision, and if you don’t do it with the flair and aplomb that Fincher brought, Fight Club simply wouldn’t be worth watching.

Fincher makes films with a cold, analytical eye, usually about bad people doing bad things. It’s no wonder that the director is considered the reigning king of serial killer films as his style, and the themes he likes to explore, suit well to that genre of films. Movies like Zodiac and Se7en and The Killer (yes, the last of which is a contract killer, not a serial, I know), and the television series Mindhunter only helped to cement him in the genre. He knows what he’s good at, and his films suit his style. He was the best choice to handle both The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl because of his cold eye and his perfectionist direction. Those films, deeply unsettling as they are, thrive with Fincher at the helm.

What’s interesting is that while the story of Fight Club would seem to settle into that same vibe for Fincher – bad people doing bad things – the movie is vibrant and alive and very different from his other works. It feels dirty and funky and it pops with a weird sense of warmth. I know, I’m probably the only person that would call Fight Club a “warm” movie, but you can feel it while watching the films. The brighter colors that come out sometimes, the story about a guy not looking to cause carnage but just find connections, a group of men who take up fighting as a way to get to the trauma within themselves. If the movie wasn’t also about dudes beating the shit out of each other and then going on to create a terrorist organization to bring down the world’s financial system, I’d almost call it a male tear-jerker bonding movie.

Yes, Fight Club is the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants for men. No, I haven’t seen Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants but I really wanted to make that joke once it occurred to me.

The film is focused on Edward Norton’s Narrator, who goes nameless through the movie although most fans of Fight Club tend to refer to him as “Jack”, an alias he picks up mid-way into the film. Jack is a sad man, adrift in his life, unable to sleep and not sure why he’s unable to sleep. He hates his job, his stuff, his life, and he wishes he could just break free and go do something else… except he has nothing else to do and no clue what that would be anyway. He needs sleep, but when his doctor won’t prescribe him anything for it, Jack eventually takes the off-hand comment the doc makes about the support groups and attends one. And, finally, in the company of other people, Jack is able to find some kind of catharsis. He doesn’t share their problems, but when they cry, he cries, and suddenly Jack can finally sleep again.

At least until Marla (Helen Bohnam Carter) shows up. Marla is a care group tourist, like Jack, except while Jack thinks he’s there for the right reasons (to at least find support) Marla just wants the coffee and donuts. Her presence ruins the experience for Jack, and suddenly he can’t sleep again. All would seem to be lost for him, drifting through life, never sure what’s real and what isn’t, until Jack meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). The two chat on a plane, and then when, by sheer happenstance, Jack’s apartment blows up (how weird, right?) Jack calls up Tyler and asks to stay at his place. The two meet for drinks, bond, have a good time, and then Tyler asks Jack to fight him. Just to see how it feels. It’s a bad fight, as neither have ever fought before, but it gives them a burst of confidence and energy and suddenly the two are best mates and know just what to do next. Suddenly, the fight club was born.

The plot of Fight Club is dense, and I’ve only really scratched the material in that first act. We haven’t even gotten to Tyler giving the club attendees tasks, Tyler and Marla meeting and falling into a relationship, Tyler taking the club and turning it into a terrorist group, Project Mayhem, Jack realizing Tyler doesn’t exist (oh yeah, spoilers for a 25 year old movie that you’re likely already seen or, at least, had spoiled for you already) and has been a figment in his head all along meaning that Jack really is Tyler Durden… yeah, it’s a lot. But the trick of Fight Club, and why it works so well, is that it doesn’t feel dense, or long, or like it’s straining to fit all of its plot into a two-hour-twenty runtime. It just flows along.

You know, like a penguin. It slides. Sorry, okay, I’ll stop making dumb movie references now. Probably.

I know I’ve referenced this elsewhere on the site (as recently as my re-review of Scott Pilgrim vs the World) but I’ll state it again here. When I first heard about Fight Club it was in a review for the film in a magazine. I had some doctor’s appointment, and I was bored in the office waiting, so I grabbed an entertainment magazine and read through most of it before getting called in. One of the articles was on Fight Club and while I can’t remember the author of the article, or even the name of the magazine, one line from that review stuck with me: Fight Club isn’t a film that’s watched, it’s downloaded into your brain. That’s an apt way of putting it because the film doesn’t slow down, it doesn’t stop. Once it starts rolling it just goes, at a frenetic pace, constantly jumping around and cutting and doing strange transitions. It never lets you settle in or feel at ease. It moves with the breakneck energy of a dude blitzed out on a whole mountain of cocaine, carrying you along for a ride far wilder than you might have ever expected.

This is the kind of film that absolutely wouldn’t be for everyone. Beyond the fact that it’s about a bunch of aimless dudes deciding to reject their lives, get into fighting, and then deciding the tear the whole system down (you know, bad guys doing bad things), it’s also a film that doesn’t flow like a normal movie, frenetically bouncing and shifting and playing out in unexpected ways. It’s not a challenging watch, per se (I find the film to be pretty fun, carrying you along for the whole ride), but you also have to be the kind of viewer that can take this kind of eclectic, hyper-active, over-the-top viewing experience. It has a sense of itself that’s heightened, like a musical except instead of the people breaking into unrealistic song-and-dance, the film does a quick cut, breaks the fourth wall, flashes a dick on screen for a single frame, and then moves on to two dudes fighting in a cold basement. It’s weird.

At the same time, though, it does have a voice and a message. It’s a story about people dissatisfied with their lives, which is a mood I think everyone gets to once in a while. It struck in 1999 at a time when the economic blitz of the 1980s had cooled and the expectation that America would just keep getting better and better had fallen away. The next generation (my generation, yes) was coming up and we weren’t as sure about where we went from here. “Get a job, get married, have kids,” as the film tells us before automatically rejecting that whole notion as absurd. That was the dream of the past, we have to find our own dream. In that way Fight Club was prophetic, seeing the trouble that would come for Millennials and Gen-Z as they had to forge their own way that couldn’t be the same as it was for the Boomers and Gen-X because that world had faded away.

And it also wanted to tear the world’s economic system down, to get rid of credit cards and debt and let everyone be on the same playing field. While Tyler’s vision in the film of civilization crumbling and people going back to their hunting and gathering ways was, of course, too far (even the film seems to find his dreams weird and off-putting) the idea that we’d want to reject the financial systems set against us, to eat the rich and start over, certainly has caught on now. This movie tapped into that and, for the generation growing up at the moment, the ideas were at least somewhat intriguing. Not the fighting, but what the film was trying to say about how society could fail people.

Of course, one of the lasting legacies of the film are all the bro-dudes who missed the actual messages of the movie and, instead, just decided to go out and make their own fight clubs. I knew a guy, in fact, who was part of one in college, inspired by the film even as they didn’t sit to think about the fact that, in the movie, the dudes in the fight club went on to be the bad guys in the movie. Tyler was cool, but he was also the worst aspects of the Narrator brought to life. He was Jack’s worst impulses made flesh, and while Tyler inspired Jack to leave the life he hated behind, he also inspired thousands (eventually) to go out and commit terrorist acts. Going and making your own fight club in some basement because you saw it in the film and thought it was cool means you really didn’t understand the movie at all.

Fight Club wasn’t aspirational; it was a warning. It was a statement that an entire generation could be lost if society wasn’t careful. And now we have generations that look back at what the Boomers and Gen-X had, the ability to get a job, to get a house, to have all the things that Fight Club derided as seemingly silly things to want, and they can’t easily get them anymore because the world has changed. Fight Club was Jack’s dire warning of the future (okay, no more references this time, I promise).

I go back from time to time and watch the movie again because it is a brilliant film. The direction and editing are amazing. The performances are fantastic from the leads, with the central trio being perfect for their roles (Marla sitting there, disdain on her lips, a cigarette hanging limping from her mouth, is something I can just see). The story is great in that dark and twisted way I often enjoy. This was a fantastic movie back in 1999 and it still holds up now. You just have to be in the right mood to enjoy it, and you have to realize the film has something to say.

If you can do that, the film works. Just be in the moment, let the film take you for a ride, and enjoy the experience. There’s no better way to enjoy Fight Club and then, if some of what the film is saying about trying to find a new way to do things (just without violence and explosions and actually destroying hundreds of buildings I’d hope), you walk away thinking afterwards. Fincher took a film that could have just been a male ego-trip and he did his magic on it making it into something more, and it allowed the film to last.