You met me at a very strange time in my life.
Well, I’m not sure how it happened exactly, but me, being both a cinephile and a fan of David Fincher, somehow managed to catch up to this film seventeen years after its original release. Yes, I’ve just seen Fight Club for the first time. I did get to see it on the big screen at a local theater, so that’s something.
Anyway, no spoilers about my ultimate opinion, but I think I would have liked it better if I’d seen it when it first came out. It isn’t that the film hasn’t worn the years well; it’s that it hasn’t worn its iconic status particularly well. Its rabid fandom has done it exactly no favors. It isn’t just that I knew the twist ending (and I can’t be mad about that; you wait seventeen years to watch a movie with a twist ending, you take what’s coming to you) or even that I knew so many of the lines before they came, though those are certainly part of the problem. I think the biggest part of the problem is that the film has been roundly misinterpreted and misquoted over the years. It’s that the fandom has been so, occasionally offensively, wrong about this movie. But the little things don’t work as well either. When Norton does the scene setting up the “I am Jack’s” motif, it played as incredibly sloppy to me because I couldn’t help but think, “Boy, is this a forced setup or what?” If I hadn’t known it was a setup, would it have worked better? Probably. But seventeen years later, how is it possible for anyone not to know the “I am Jack’s” bit.
But the more troubling part is seeing how the film has been so painfully misread. It’s hard to watch the film without holding its most rabid fans against it. What do I mean? Well, it’s hard to appreciate some elements of the film when you know what’s been done with it. Pitt’s performance as Tyler Durden is fantastic, but how much can you really be glad the film created it when you know that people all over the internet . . . think that he’s right, that his poseur BS is actually profound? Fincher’s created a powerful, grimy, disturbing critique of masculinity, the disenfranchisement of the white collar worker and the way the mixture of those things creates extremism. But do I applaud that when I know that millions of people think that it’s actually a rallying cry to disenfranchised workers and a celebration of radicalized masculinity? The concept of the Fight Club itself is a disturbing and powerful metaphor for suppressed rage and masculinity in crisis. But a lot of people think the Fight Club itself is just a damn good idea. In fairness, does that reflect on the film? Doesn’t it mean that, in some very significant ways, Fincher’s point is muddled and unclear? Or do we blame the foolish audience and exonerate the artist? These aren’t exactly questions that only apply to this movie, but somehow I felt these ambivalences and these problematic questions more strongly here than I ever have before with a film.
Maybe it’s because in other cases, the blame has to rest on the audience because the text of the film or the artwork is actually easily explicit enough. That case is harder to make with Fight Club because Fincher does allow us as an audience to feel Tyler’s charisma and for him to make compelling arguments from time to time. It’s obvious that the character’s violent psychopathic fascism is supposed to outweigh that charisma and those valid points, but then again, apparently it isn’t.
But enough about the film in context. How does it, after all that is said and done, actually stand up? Quite well actually. Fincher commits to a consistent vision here and I am glad I saw this on the big screen because I think the pervasive atmosphere of oppressive ugliness and decay is important to the film. This movie is, in a lot of ways, literally unpleasant to look at. It is, also, of course, incredibly stylish and packed with meta elements, some of which work and some of which just feel precious. I really can’t say enough good about the performances. Pitt & Norton are both perfectly cast. Pitt exudes charisma and intensity, delivering even the most ridiculous monologues with such gusto that they work. He makes Tyler compelling, frightening and both believable in the moment and also even more believable as a figure of fantasy. You think Pitt is great in the film as you watch it; when the twist comes, you realize he’s even greater than you thought. At first, you buy his performance in this heightened reality, but you still occasionally snicker at how he’s just a little TOO cool, a little TOO ready with a profound monologue. But then you discover that he isn’t actually cool & profound; he’s what a depressed office drone THINKS is cool & profound. And then, of course, it all makes sense. Norton is probably career best (though with an actor like Norton you can debate this all day), capturing the frayed sickness of the character in the beginning and then the growing paranoia and fear as the film progresses. Helena Bonham Carter is kind of revelatory; it’s not her best performance, but it is, though still very weird and twisted, a very atypical one for her. She has less fragility here than, I think, in any performance I’ve ever seen her in. Zach Grenier, veteran character actor I’ve always loved, is pitch perfect as Norton’s harried, smarmy boss. Jared Leto is . . . blonde. Meat Loaf is . . . unpleasant.
I think maybe that’s the one problem with the film. It goes a bit farther than it should at times, I think. The tone shifts don’t always work. The Meat Loaf character is a great example. He’s supposed to be darkly comic, I think, but he’s just cartoonish and stupid and feels consistently out of place. Some of the meta elements don’t work, of course, and the film achieves a level of clowning at times when the film focuses on Norton repeatedly beating himself into submission, most of all during the climax. It’s pretty eye-rolling and impossible to take seriously. And, in context of things I think didn’t work, it’s worth mentioning that the movie could stand to be tightened; at two-and-a-half hours, it’s simply too long. Back to the tone shifts, while Fincher is making serious statements about a lot of things, I think the main goal of this movie was sincerely just to **** with the viewer’s head. Fincher may have wanted some of the moments I reactedto negatively to play differently, but he’s probably fine with my discombobulated exasperation too. I’m not reacting to Meat Loaf the way Fincher wanted me to, I don’t think, but I’m still being disturbed by the character and it’s kind of all six of one with this movie: as long as you’re operating on some level of freaked out at all times, Fincher isn’t all that concerned about how he’s got you there. The end of the film is . . . odd, I guess. It doesn’t make anything approaching logical sense, but at this point in the film, I think it’s a mistake to expect logical sense. But I can’t help but feel a little cheated in the way that Fincher kills off one Tyler without killing off the other. I think the whole point was supposed to be that you have to kill one to kill the other, but then Fincher reverses that completely. It’s not a perfect film and it’s not a movie I can see myself watch repeated times, layered though it is, but it’s what it is and if you can’t handle that, get the **** out. After all, if it’s your first night, you HAVE to fight. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – flawed film is too long & doesn’t land all the tones right, but it retains its power to disturb, thanks to stylish direction and brilliant performances. 3 ½ stars.