David Fincher’s movie first appeared at the Venice Film Festival in 1999 (where Fox cannily gifted critics bars of Fight Club soap). At that early morning screening twenty years ago, the opening music by the Dust Brothers slapped us across the face, waking us up and preparing us for the exhilarating film to come. A lot of critics were unprepared for the onslaught of anti-capitalist, nihilistic, violent toxic masculinity and its screening was quickly followed by scathing reviews.
Thanks to those reviews the film bombed at the box office, yet that didn’t stop the film becoming a cult classic almost immediately upon release. Even Jennifer Aniston got in on the act when she appeared on SNL in her own Fight Club skit that included the killer quote and “I want you to hit me as hard as you can”. The story is based on Chuck Palahniuk’s eponymous novel, which – unlike the film – had been widely acclaimed. The story is told by a young, nameless insomniac white-collar worker (Edward Norton) who attends a variety of self-help groups in order to be heard and receive hugs.
It’s also where he meets a fellow group gate-crasher, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). On a business trip he then meets the charming and enigmatic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a travelling soap salesman whose good looks, rock-star attire and blasé attitude make him the polar opposite to Norton’s timid office worker. After a series of unfortunate events, including his apartment getting torched, the narrator calls Tyler and thus becomes embroiled in the latter’s anarchic lifestyle as the two men lay the foundations for the Fight Club.
As the film progresses, we learn that there are ulterior motives for the club as Tyler calls on his loyal band of men to commit certain eye-catching acts that are a clear attack on the status quo and a wake-up call for the disgruntled and downtrodden. Brad Pitt had been in a slew of films ranging from the brave and exciting 12 Monkeys to the less wonderful Meet Joe Black, as well as starring in Fincher’s previous film, the highly-acclaimed and hugely successful Se7en. His co-star Edward Norton was already a two-time Oscar nominee for his roles in Primal Fear and American History X, so to say that these two actors were big hitters before even going into Fight Club is an easy shot, but true.
However, this was the first time most audiences had seen Helena Bonham Carter out of a corset and playing a messy, chaotic, sexy contemporary character. Unlaced and unhinged, she absolutely lapped it up, putting in what is possibly her best performance to date. Though the focus might be on the two male leads, this film is very much a three-hander and the triumvirate of actors led a story that has punched its way into the pantheon of much-quoted classics.
So were the critics right to vilify the film? Would they write a different review if it were released today? Twenty years later, the giant corporations are still holding us in thrall (“Planet Starbucks”), we are still buying all our furniture from Ikea and the dystopian society author Chuck Palahniuk depicted so terrifyingly in his novel is very much a reality. A group of men joining underground groups, getting ready to rise up seems scarily familiar, particularly in the USA where white male terrorists cause havoc and commit atrocities. Fincher makes it clear what he thinks about the men’s unwavering adherence to Tyler and the ease with which the charismatic leader gains their unquestioning allegiance.
Alongside the violence, the film is peppered with genuinely funny moments such as Marla showing up at the testicular cancer group, the boys stealing fat from the liposuction clinic, conversations between the two about who they would like to fight (Ghandi and Lincoln), a movie theatre advertising Seven Year in Tibet (sic), a glimpse of porn and a Forrest Gump quotation thrown in for good measure. And while many railed against the boys-own club vibe of the film, a lot of women would recognise Marla’s frustrations with dating a man blowing hot and cold (or “Dr Jekyll and Mr Jackass”, to quote our heroine). Provocative, dark and unsettling, though often incredibly funny, David Fincher’s misunderstood movie remains essential and entertaining viewing.
- (Re)Watch it on CHILI: Fight Club