The violent rebellion of ‘Fight Club’: Reflecting on David Fincher’s classic 21 years later
“The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.”
Although most of the members of Fight Club respected that rule, we certainly haven’t. 21 years after its release, we are still talking about it. It has cemented its place as one of the most recognisable films of the last two decades. David Fincher’s film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s eponymous 1996 novel has elicited polarised opinions from viewers but the indelible mark it has left on popular culture cannot be denied by anyone. The people who hate it often cite the film’s fetishization of violence, juvenile nihilism and the propagation of a flawed idea of masculinity as reasons for doing so. However, it would be unfair to hold Fight Club responsible for the aforementioned crimes because those were the very things that the film satirised so well.
Encased in the totality of a circular structure, we begin at the end. When it was first screened, neither the audience nor the critics responded well to the film. Over the years, it gained a new life as it kept attracting new viewers. The biggest attraction Fight Club has to offer, even greater than the spectacle of its “twist ending”, is its philosophical doctrine. Suffocated by the ennui and perpetual fatigue of a working-class life, the Narrator (brilliantly portrayed by Edward Norton) laments, “Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy.” Suffering from insomnia, he becomes addicted to misery tourism. He visits support groups for terminal diseases and cries with the people who are actually dying in order to sleep well at night, fills up his yawning existential void with IKEA products.
All of this changes when he meets Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) on a business trip. The charismatic soap salesman is antithetical to the Narrator’s way of life. Tyler exhibits an infectious irreverence for institutional practices, be it the capitalist framework of modern society or the emergency pamphlets they hand out on aeroplanes. He is a chaotic rebel who injects fleeting scenes from porn videos into animated films meant for children and urinates in the food that his catering service prepares for the opulent sections of society. A major part of the enduring influence of Fight Club is the mythical (both literally and metaphorically) figure of Tyler. He is the one who spoke to the members who flocked to his cult as well as the audience:
We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
Fight Club’s greatest achievement is this penetrating critique of the widespread societal malady of its time. It isn’t just an underground club where people beat the shit out of each other. What it represents is truly remarkable: a place where people shed the constructed identities of their jobs, their troubles and everything else about them. It is a collective stand against the hypocrisies of society, the fragmented lives of people packed in cubicles and the male underwear models of Calvin Klein determining what masculinity is. Project Mayhem, Tyler’s grand plan, is just a manifestation of the festering frustrations of young men who are tired of not being able to live up to the normative stereotypes of success. “We’re God’s unwanted children? So be it!”, Tyler yells and this is Fight Club’s appealing battle-cry. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t special or rich or all the other things that society wants you to be, you are welcome to fight with us if you’ve had enough.
Of course, apart from the relevant socio-political commentary, another crucial element is the troubled psyche of the Narrator. We learn later that Tyler was just a schizophrenic delusion in the Narrator’s mind but Fincher is a master of foreshadowing. He put in momentary glitches which showed Tyler right from the start. When the support group leader asks everyone to “really open [themselves] up”, we see a fleeting image of Tyler as if the Narrator’s fabric of reality is already being destabilized by the repressed violent desires of his mind. Tyler is the Narrator’s idealised ego, the epitome of masculinity and human agency who starts a cult and wages a war against the world all on his own. The fragmentation of modern society has led to the fragmentation of the Narrator’s mind as well and he cannot reconcile his preconceived notions of morality with the uncontrollable urge to burn everything to the ground.
Fight Club is a gritty elegy for all the white-collar zombies as well as the thugs who want to render them obsolete but it is understandable how the film can be misconstrued as one that glorifies the violent destruction it indulges in. Similar accusations were levied against Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) for depicting an uprising of psychologically unstable individuals. No matter how you look at it, the problems which both films explore are relevant and extremely important. If the fight for a new world is led by an anti-hero, it is because the concept of heroism has been extinct for a while. The violent rebellions of Fight Club come across as prescient visions of an apocalypse right now because of the volatile mass-protests taking place all over the world.
The impact of David Fincher’s 1999 film has been monumental. Fight Club often gets referenced in countless works of popular culture, be it passing allusions (like in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver) or the exploration of the same themes such as the financial collapse in Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot (its protagonist also goes insane while fighting the evils of contemporary society). From spin-off video games to merchandise, Fight Club has become a cultural phenomenon. Yes, that defeats the point that the film was making about the addiction of materialism but buying a T-shirt has become the most common way of displaying your beliefs anyway. Despite all the dilutions of Fight Club’s minimalist philosophy, its powerful message still lives on:
“We are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.”