'Fight Club': THR's 1999 Review

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'Fight Club'
There is something deeply unsettling about a work that uncritically espouses brutality as a function of alienation and nonconformity.

On Oct. 15, 1999, 20th Century Fox unveiled David Fincher's adaptation of Fight Club in theaters, where it would eventually go on to gross $100 million globally. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below: 

David Fincher's fourth feature, Fight Club, is impeccably made but constitutes a deeply fascist art. Nihilistic and uncompromising, the movie is fascinating though hypocritical, a brazen denunciation of billboard culture that itself utilizes glamorous stars and new technology in making possible its realization. Unmistakably a work of its time, of the culture, of Hollywood, the movie demands a certain attention and is not easily dismissed, but there is something deeply unsettling about a work that uncritically espouses brutality as a function of alienation and nonconformity.

Fight Club seems precisely the kind of Hollywood product targeted in the clamor for greater responsibility and morality in the post-Columbine national debate. Whether the film's delayed release date, moved from early August to mid-October, was a response to that or the fact it simply wasn't finished in time (the movie screened here without closing credits), Fight Club has the primary requisites of success: commercially proven director, big-name stars, edgy material to attract young crowds and the inevitable controversy engendered by the subject matter. But its appeal is as limited as the film is confused, and the movie is bound to polarize critics and audiences.

The movie synthesizes Fincher's previous two works, Seven and The Game, exploring the roots of man's capacity for depravity and the inexplicable juxtaposed against the ironic, postmodernist examination of form and content, of control and the elaborately make-believe. But part of the movie's confusion stems from the struggle over authorship among the four principals — Fincher's direction, Jim Uhls' script from the Chuck Palahniuk novel and the sometimes conflicting performance styles of Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. So what begins promisingly as satire turns increasingly abstract, becoming allegory and cautionary fable until its final third, when it devolves into an apocalyptic Hollywood thriller with an unconvincing last-act plot revelation.

Told in flashback, the movie opens describing Norton's foray into encounter and support groups as a possible antidote to his insomnia. Never identified, Norton is called the Narrator. He's a liability specialist for a major car company. His impersonal condominium is decorated in upscale products ordered from brand-name catalogs. Flying home from a business trip he befriends Tyler Durden (Pitt), an enigmatic, brainy loner. After his condo burns in a mysterious fire, the Narrator moves in with Tyler, sharing his dank three-level house. Tyler, who manufactures his own soap, works as a projectionist (where he inserts pornographic material into prints of Cinderella) and waiter (where he pollutes the soup with his own urine).

The Narrator quickly succumbs to Tyler's devilish charm and searing honesty. In the parking lot of a bar they frequent, in an outburst of their camaraderie, the two start pummeling each other, testing to see how much pain they are able to deliver and endure. Gradually their fights draw a crowd of onlookers and the bouts become ritualized, tapping into a subculture of aggressive, alienated men divided by class distinctions. Every Saturday night, in the basement of the bar, brutal, bare-handed fighting establishes a dominant ruling order, a group of Nietzschean supermen ("Do this for a month, and your body is carved in wood," the Narrator intones).

Tyler becomes the catalyst for the Narrator's violent rejection of the bourgeois life he has so assiduously cultivated. Increasingly he takes on Tyler's characteristics. Dramatically the conflict turns on his fear that Tyler has gotten out of control, as he has begun to use the house as the base of a terrorist network to orchestrate "Project Mayhem," violent acts of corporate sabotage. But the story used to sketch in such a bracing and dark vision of social critique and the collapse of civilization turns schizoid and deranged. Helena Bonham Carter is badly used as a drug-ravaged lost soul who comes between the two men.

The movie is predicated on disgust and aggression to make its point dramatically. Form and content merge very uncomfortably. Fincher's uncritical examination of violence and its repercussions becomes itself a celebration, an aesthetic and ideology, that turns increasingly sadistic and cruel. Even worse, the portrait that emerges isn't necessarily illustrated but art-directed — the corroded living conditions of the house, for instance — in precisely the kind of manner Fincher criticizes in the film.

As the story breaks down, the alternative social structure Fincher envisions seems unusually shallow and incomplete.

Fight Club is physically a very handsome production, but it is coercive and unrelenting. Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography is probably the darkest ever perpetrated on a major Hollywood film. With an absence of natural light, the movie unfolds in a succession of subterranean interiors and black-lit exteriors that become as suffocating as the movie. This movie tells you exactly what to think and say while offering almost nothing of substance or insight. — Patrick Z. McGavin, originally published Sept. 13, 1999