movie film review | chris tookey

Fight Club

1999 - 20th Century Fox - all rights reserved
  Fight Club Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
7.13 /10
Tyler Durden: Brad Pitt , Narrator: Edward Norton , Marla Singer: Helena Bonham Carter
Full Cast >

Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Jim Uhls . Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk

Released: 1999
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 139

A young man is drawn into a world of violence.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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The film falls into three sections, with an ever-darkening tone. The first act is a lively social comedy, in which the narrator (Edward Norton) becomes ill-at-ease with his existence as a corporate employee. He has misgivings about the work he is doing: helping a big car company get away with making vehicles that don't comply with high safety standards. He is increasingly unable to sleep and can't feel any emotion other than generalised discontent. Most of all, he feels emasculated.

His doctor, though, can't find anything wrong with him ("you can't die from insomnia") and unsympathetically recommends that, if he wants to know what real male suffering is about, he attend a local men's support-group for sufferers from testicular cancer. So he does. At first, he is a callous observer of such support groups, but he gets a taste for them and becomes a fascinated tourist through their weirder excesses. This culminates in a showdown between himself and a fellow-tourist, a bored girl in black (Helena Bonham Carter) with a bad attitude. Rather than keep ruining each other's fun, they share out the best-value support groups between them.

The second, less comedic section begins when the narrator encounters a stranger called Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Tyler seems to possess an uncanny insight into his brain. The narrator's bachelor pad explodes in a gas explosion that looks at first like an accident, so he moves in with Tyler and falls under his influence.

Tyler introduces him to the dubious pleasures of getting beaten up and feeling pain. Gradually their bare-knuckle fights become underground institutions, as men line up to get in touch with their brutal sides, as opposed to the lovey-dovey stuff they are allowed to express in conventional support groups.

The tone darkens as Bonham Carter's character moves in and annoys the narrator by having noisy sex with Tyler. Tyler takes the credit for inventing fight clubs and uses his motivational skills to organise his ever-increasing band of followers into eco-warriors, using their ill-defined grievances to support a fascist-style terrorist movement from which the narrator finds himself increasingly alienated.

The third section begins with a twist that I really didn't expect - even more audacious and disturbing than the one in The Usual Suspects - and turns into a psychological thriller, as the narrator does battle with Tyler's evil empire and engineers a final cathartic show-down.

Fight Club arrived with a worse reputation for on-screen violence than the Arsenal midfield. It has been savaged by some American reviewers as brutalising, witless, infantile and fascistic. One of Britain's most respected critics has denounced it as "not only anti-capitalism but anti-society, and, indeed, anti-God." Even the pusillanimous British censors have made cuts, complaining of the film's sadism.

Well, it certainly proves the adage that no two people have the same experience while watching a film. For Fight Club strikes me as witty, grown-up and extremely unlikely to brutalise anyone. It has an original, funny, literate screenplay, contains three of the year's best performances, and is the most brilliantly directed picture since Saving Private Ryan. And, like Spielberg's film, it skilfully uses the shock of extreme violence to make points that are profound and revelatory about the human condition.

If director David Fincher gave you any time to think about the plot, it might strike you as wildly implausible. No one who behaved like the narrator would last long in a corporation. The violence undergone by the central characters is so excessive (and, for once, the horrible effects on them are clearly visible) that only a fool would wish to suffer it in real life, so it's hard to imagine fight clubs really springing up. And the characters lack parents, children and friends to a preposterous extent.

Fight Club is about as naturalistic as a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. That's because it is a vision of Hell, and a dystopic satire on modern society. Like The Full Monty, it shows a deliberately exaggerated world where men feel they no longer fit in, where their old aggressive instincts, once valued, are now condemned as anti-social.

It's also a perceptive analysis of cults and Fascism. Both, the film argues, arise from the psychological need some people have for authoritarian leaders, the comfort which the weak can derive from unthinking conformism. Brad Pitt is wonderfully charismatic as Tyler, a daredevil with no self-doubt, the sort of person who rises to the top everywhere. There's a distinct hint of Tony Blair about the eyes.

Though the film has been likened to A Clockwork Orange, it is far from sympathetic to the kind of gang mentality and violence which Stanley Kubrick unintentionally glorified. Tyler's followers are anything but an advertisement for fascism. On the contrary, they're humorously portrayed as utter dolts, absurdly gullible and without an original thought in their heads.

Accusations of the film being fascist are wildly off-beam. Norton's and Bonham Carter's characters eventually find a moral perspective on Tyler which the audience is meant to share and, audibly, does. Although Fight Club captures the allure of fascism to an extent that many may find alarming, it must be the most anti-fascist film of the year.

The violence in the film is graphic, and the reason why some people will find it hard to watch. However, the emphasis is on the pleasures of being hurt, not - as in so many of Michael Winner's films - on the joys of hurting and killing others.

Fight Club digs deeper than any other film I have seen into the causes of violence, about why people go on killing sprees in Bosnia or pupils turn guns upon their schoolmates in America. Violent, anti-social role-models in screen entertainment and inadequate gun control undoubtedly play a part in encouraging such horrors, but the roots go much deeper, into the emptiness of materialism, the breakdown of family ties and the way human (especially male) drives can become perverted if society provides no useful outlet for them.

There is always something verging on hypocrisy in films that claim to be anti-materialistic while allowing product placement and accepting finance from big corporations such as Twentieth Century Fox, but Fight Club carries apocalyptic warnings that we ignore at our peril.

Even those who don't understand the film's social message will emerge disturbed by its power to suck us into the nightmarish world of a deranged personality. It's a powerful experience, even more thrilling and visceral than previous tours of disturbed minds in Hitchcock's Psycho and David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

Like Blade Runner, another film that was misunderstood on release, Fight Club depicts the world as seen by a single character, the narrator. It is, therefore, shot like an expressionist nightmare.

Unlike the German expressionists of the 1920s, however, director David Fincher (whose previous masterpiece was the equally apocalyptic but less challenging thriller, Seven) and screenwriter Jim Uhls have a sense of humour. The bravura camerawork and lighting lend it the nightmarish intensity of Charles Laughton's Night of The Hunter; but the crackling one-liners, many from Chuck Palahniuk's original novel, mean that the film also has the cool irony of a Raymond Chandler thriller.

In lesser hands, the story might have ended up looking silly; but thanks to Fincher's mastery of grungy style and unsettling imagery it's a triumph. Pitt and Bonham Carter are terrific in the chief supporting roles, but it's Edward Norton - who hasn't given a bad performance since his memorable debut in Primal Fear - who delivers a tour de force.

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