Fight Club: A Cult Movie at 20

Now that Fight Club has reached its 20th anniversary, it might be a good time to reconsider an influential movie that made so many eminent movie critics want to, well, punch it out. When first appeared, Roger Ebert called it “the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since Death Wish,” a “celebration of violence” in which “eroticism between the sexes is replaced by all-guy locker-room fights.” It was “macho porn,” fumed Ebert.

The denunciation of Fight Club penned by David Denby of the New Yorker also employed the “f” word. Denby said the movie was “a fascist rhapsody posing as a metaphor of liberation.” In the Observer, Rex Reed wrote that Fight Club was “a film without a single redeeming quality, which may have to find its audience in hell.” In the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan dismissed its “whiny, infantile philosophizing and bone-crushing violence.” “If the first rule of Fight Club is ‘Nobody talks about Fight Club,’” wrote Turan, alluding to its most famous line, “a fitting subsection might be: why would anyone want to?”

A movie so thoroughly panned usually bombs at the box office. This one did, despite featuring Edward Norton, and a Brad Pitt at the peak of his popularity, in leading roles. In a good year for Hollywood (American Beauty and The Matrix were among the strong performers of 1999), Fight Club didn’t turn a profit until it reached the video stores (remember those?) and proved a particular favorite with young men drawn to its cool digital effects and apocalyptic atmosphere. Two decades on, viewers still debate the merits of Fight Club: Is it an astute critique of consumerism, or a hymn to toxic masculinity? Whatever else, Fight Club may still be, as the New York Times declared on its 10th birthday, “the defining cult movie of our time.”

David Fincher, its director, claimed he was surprised by the hostile reaction Fight Club provoked. “I’ve always thought people would think it was funny,” he told Entertainment Weekly. And in fact its nameless main character, played by Norton, appears to be a familiar comic type—the hapless office worker, stuck low on the workplace totem pole, bored with his job and afraid of his boss. But of course the humor in Fight Club, which was based closely on Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel, is quite dark. It recalls Fincher’s Seven (1995), another neo-noir vehicle marked by seediness and gloom.

Norton’s character, who also narrates Fight Club, lives in a nondescript, high-rise condo that he’s filled with brand-name goods. Socially isolated and spiritually numb, the Narrator kills time thumbing through furniture catalogues and wondering “what dining room set best describes me as a person?” After weeks of severe insomnia, he looks for solace and company at local support group meetings for the survivors of life-threatening diseases. At one of these sessions, he meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), who becomes his love interest of sorts—a black-clad, chain-smoking figure as muddled and self-destructive as himself.

Marla may be the Narrator’s soulmate, but Tyler Durden (Pitt) is, it appears, his alter ego—the sort of cocky, freewheeling guy he’d most like to be. Durden is a self-employed soap salesman with the ability, as the Narrator notes, “to let that which does not matter truly slide.” Durden’s an anarchist, his unruliness expressed in his aggressively unfashionable thrift-shop wardrobe and his furtive acts of vandalism and social outrage that, if discovered, would almost certainly land him in jail. “It’s only after we’ve lost everything,” Tyler proclaims, “that we’re free to do anything.”

It’s Tyler Durden who starts a “Fight Club” where young men can gather in secret locations to pummel each other, bare-knuckle style. The club isn’t without rules—you can’t, for example, keep beating an opponent who wants to quit—but it’s brutal and gory, and there are no referees. It combines the solidarity of a support group with the dangerous, unfettered excitement of Ultimate Fighting, leaving its participants smeared with blood yet oddly at peace. “After fighting,” Norton’s character explains, “everything else in your life gets the volume turned down.”

Tyler and the Narrator think it might be fun to fight Abraham Lincoln, or Gandhi, or William Shatner. But they agree that fighting their fathers would be best of all, a chance to settle scores. Norton’s character reveals that, when he was six, his father left home to start another family. Now they rarely speak, the Narrator adds, since the old man offers nothing but formulaic advice: go to college; get a job; find a wife. “I can’t get married,” he admits. “I’m a 30-year-old boy.”

Here and elsewhere in Fight Club one senses the lingering presence of Robert Bly’s huge bestseller Iron John. Released in 1990 and widely discussed in the popular media, Bly’s earnest if eccentric book—a kind of self-help guide mixed with poetry, folk stories, and Jungian analysis—discerned a generation of contemporary men with remote or absent fathers who, as a result, lacked healthy mentoring. Many, like Norton’s character in Fight Club, have become “soft men,” to use Bly’s term, enervated and vaguely grieving. They have lost a key part of their masculine inheritance—the robust confidence necessary for “positive leadership energy.”

Bly urged the contemporary man, whose view of the world had been “sanitized” and left “shallow” by “the corporations,” to look “down into his psyche” where he will discover “the moist, the swampish, the wild, the untamed”—an “inner Wild Man” full of a “hurricane energy.” In Fight Club, the Narrator’s mentor Tyler Durden is certainly a wild, which is to say impulsive, man. But he’s also masochistic—not exactly what Bly had in mind for a seasoned, well-balanced protector who ought to be a nurturing presence as well as self-confident and brave. To achieve maturity, Norton’s character must excise the part of himself that longs to be Tyler Durden.

Under Durden, Fight Club turns into Project Mayhem, a guerrilla band organized to carry out  malicious pranks against chain stores and credit-card companies—a sort of Occupy Wall Street avant la lettre. Tyler’s disciples follow him without question. They don ski masks, dress in black, and recite mindless chants. They appear both buffoonish and menacing. The Narrator calls them “morons.” Ultimately we watch him running about the streets in his undershorts, hoping to defuse one of Project Mayhem’s particularly dangerous stunts.

One hesitates to assign weighty meaning to Fight Club. As one of its principals observed, “It’s a serious film by deeply unserious people.” Intentionally or not, it’s replete with ambiguities. Still, a clear-eyed viewing suggests that it isn’t trying to “resurrect the Fuehrer principle,” as another alarmed reviewer declared during its debut. Instead, it’s a bleakly comic critique of fascism that retains much of its freshness today.