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Friday, Feb. 23, 2024
The Observer

Fincher's overreaching 'Fight Club'


Let's talk about Tyler Durden.

And why "Fight Club" couldn't really make up its mind. It wanted to say something. It was dying to communicate something to everyone about how backwards our modern society is. It was dying to voice the cure. It was dying to sell us some soap. (One of the film's best image devices-Tyler Durden, the character who cleans everyone's perception of modern reality, sells soap.) 

But by the film's end, there are too many concerns on the table. It's an experience similar to hearing three separate people say something at the same time. You have a vague idea what the issue is, but are more or less confused about everything else.

On October 15th , 1999, 77 days before the start of the 21st century, David Fincher released his fourth feature film "Fight Club," a filmic adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel of the same name. It received mediocre critic responses, but since has become one of the most celebrated films of the 1990s. The film is a fantastic realization of Fincher's potential, and both Brad Pitt and Edward Norton give unforgettable performances. The content is raw, philosophical and challenging. Like all of Fincher's pieces, it runs at high speed and features both the beautiful and the morally repulsive. It was the perfect film to usher in our technological era.

However, as was previously mentioned, the film's ethos is a little scattershot. The film opens with a wonderful critique of modern society. Edward Norton's character, an unnamed narrator, lives a drab and materialistic existence. He suffers from a horrible case of insomnia, but does not know what's wrong. This is the film's most successful thematic thread-the critique of modern materialism. This powerful theme can be summed up in one poignant delivery, supplied by Durden later on in the film: "You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You are not the contents of your wallet."

Durden (Brad Pitt) functions as the film's engine for this philosophical insight. After a random explosion incinerates the narrator's apartment, Durden reassures the narrator that his identity was in no way exclusively tied up in the apartment. In other words, the narrator is not what he owns, so he has no reason to fret that it all is gone.

So the narrator goes to live with Durden for a bit, and soon gets roped into Durden's off-color lifestyle, staying in a deserted house within a dilapidated part of town. Though their living situation is almost completely devoid of modern convenience, the narrator begins to realize that he is living the most fulfilling life he has ever lived.

But this is where it gets weird. For whatever reason, Durden, the narrator, and a bunch of other white and blue-collar American males who work out during the week and drink to excess on the weekend discover an alternative to the American materialistic lifestyle. They meet in the basement of bar and beat each other to a pulp. And the audience is somehow convinced that this is a good idea.

Furthermore, the film attempts to weave a third theme concerning the acceptance of mortality. It is somewhat related to the reason these guys beat each other up - they are trying to reach a point where no one can hurt them. Where they don't fear death. Where they don't fear pain ... Okay, I'll buy that. This is, after all, the philosophical space where the narrator overcomes his insomnia. But then there is the whole anti-materialistic bent, which the audience is forced to tie together.

When one watches "Fight Club," it really doesn't seem that messy. Fincher does a good job of weaving these themes together to form a clever ride. So, although the wise wouldn't necessarily try to juggle all those themes in one film, a little overreaching has never signed a film's death warrant. It all, more or less, works.

But I have a final problem with the film - it's a bigger deal than the previous issues. And yes, this is a spoiler. So if you have never seen "Fight Club" and it sounds like its worth your time (I assure you it is), stop reading.

I take issue with the final twist. The revelation that Durden is the narrator, and vice versa. Why does Tyler Durden have to be a part of the narrator's consciousness? Why further stretch the audience's suspension of belief by convincing them that the narrator was somehow both of the film's protagonists through the entirety of their interaction and the film? Where does that even get us? How is that related to materialism? To pain and death? To soap? Don't think too hard about this. I assure you, it's not related, in any way.

Wouldn't the film be that much more powerful if Durden was a real person, capable of real change? Durden's power becomes instantly limited as soon as we realize that his agency is restricted to the narrator. The psychological twist adds some pizzazz to a film that has already been pizzazz-ed as far as it can go. And the dramatic tension it creates, i.e. the narrator battling himself in an empty garage, isn't that interesting or worth the confusion.

I would use the metaphor of the straw that broke the camels back, but this final psychological twist is far more than a straw. Its magnitude overcomes almost everything else the film has tried to do up until the end. It overpowers the themes and instead of wondering how we should respond to Tyler's theory on life, we are forced into trying to figure out how the narrator managed to be two places at once. 

"Fight Club" simply has too much going on; it wants to say too much. Four separate films could have been made with all the themes and ideas presented, and Fincher gives us but one. Perhaps this is part of the film's appeal. It can be approached from multiple angles; many interpretations of its tone can be made. But I suspect most fans are like me. They are always intrigued, and enjoy the ride, but are tongue tied when friends ask what the film is really "about." We can't make up our minds as to what to say first. And its then we realize that "Fight Club" couldn't make up its mind either. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
Contact Mac Hendrickson at