Film review: Fight Club (1999)

For me, David Fincher’s masterpiece, and among the best and most important films of the 90s, generation-defining, an intense and anarchistic movie. Open to multiple interpretations, raises issues about identity and culture which most young adults can mirror themselves in. Difficult to categorize and often misunderstood. Rottentomatoes labels Fight Club a darkly comic drama. Visually and technically stunning, a brave and thought-provoking story set somewhere in the USA that is critical of our contemporary western society.

Fight Club is about how many people year after year have monotonous jobs, which a hundred other co-workers could perform, and thus what makes us individual is compromised or neglected in our working lives. We become a jigsaw in a system, a statistic. In some cases, the things we buy from our pay cheques are not as important as we think, the media and what everyone else does manipulating us into believing external signifiers of happiness are a goal, and causing an abandonment of the search for spiritual happiness. If we all strive to consume, are we all becoming the same, and less unique as people? Are we deluding ourselves and just fighting for a contrived and brainwashing brochure happiness to avoid thinking about a more meaningful cause? Really taps into what drives us as human beings. Do we deep down want a safe life where we follow the crowd and not listen to ourselves? The things you own end up owning you. "The world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind us from the truth" as The Matrix (1999) proclaimed. But is big business the reason for this malaise or are there other greater factors?

The first-person narration voice-over is for me very powerful. Edward Norton in arguably his finest performance, who plays insomniac narrator Jack, who is lonely and tired of his boring desk job. His doctor says Jack’s lack of sleep is caused by something bigger, possibly a mid life crisis of sorts. He attends self-help groups in order to feel something again. At one of these meetings he meets Marla Singer, played by Helena Bonham Carter. She becomes sort of a mix between a guardian angel and girlfriend for Jack. They can relate to each other’s pain.

Jack meets Tyler (Brad Pitt), and instantly becomes fascinated by Tyler’s reckless dark side and revenge crusade towards society, they become friends, and this triggers Jack into becoming acquainted with a more rebellious life style. Tyler represents the narrator's sense of incompleteness and parental abandonment. Tyler thinks you should follow your dreams and not be bound by the expectations of society to for example make money and buy stuff. Tyler makes up his own rules. When he is with Tyler, Jack feels like he is living again, and they engage in crazy and dangerous pranks and ideas, they are in a way testing their own boundaries, almost like a teenager would. Making radical decisions in order to figure out who they are, and what they want.

They create fight club, an underground club where males can fight each other, which is intended to raise the spirits of its members. Violence is not accepted in society, but in fight club it’s allowed. A lot of people tend to remember the twist, which I won't reveal here. Part of us wants to conform and fit in and be accepted, and on the other hand we have a wild side, which we in some ways cannot tap into in our daily lives, the way society works and the laws prohibit us to go around acting crazy. I think this is also part of the message of the story, males since the stone age have had a natural inclination for destruction and violence but where to let this urge come to the surface, and if you repress this side of yourself, how will it affect your well-being? Do you become an insomniac like Jack? Did soldiers get to live out this violent behaviour during world war one and two? Gender roles is a theme. Males, traditionally, the hunter/gatherer, their inherent 'abilities' as men are no longer needed for the smooth running of today’s society.

To a certain degree, the journey of discovery Jack and Tyler embark on is also a learning experience for us the viewers. Fight Club affected me deeply and changed the way I perceived the world when I was younger, was my favourite film of 1999. I think I saw it at the right time in my life being 18-years-old. I wrote a project on the book and movie in my final year in high school, such was the impact.

You could interpret the whole Tyler rebellion as a dream, Jack is so sleep deprived that he may not be able to distinguish dream from reality. Is turning your life upside down a hypothesis Jack doesn’t have the courage to go through with in real life, like it is for a great many citizens, due to fear of tarnishing your reputation? A quote from the novel indicates this: “The moment you fell asleep, Tyler stood there and said Wake up”

They could have done more with the book cover design, don't you think? Author Chuck Palahniuk appears to be mocking the self-centred obsession of our looks, people have fat removal operations, Tyler steals the fat, and makes money by turning it into soap, which we again use to freshen up our appearance. A bizarre circle to say the least.

At the start of the audio commentary, author Chuck Palahniuk explains that the genesis of the 1996 book came when he was on a trip, and some of the people were playing loud music in the middle of the night, and he got into a fight. Days later people were uncomfortable about looking at his beat-up face at work. Almost all of the book is based on stories the author’s friends told him, or stunts they pulled off together. Palahniuk was glad to bring the story to a larger audience: “It would offer more people the idea that they could create their own lives outside the existing blueprint for happiness offered by society”

In an interview, Palahniuk explains how pranking and misbehaving is what defines recent transgressive fiction, Trainspotting or American Pyscho are other examples. In Fight Club, he thinks the pranks help to build the protagonists self-confidence, the civil disobedience makes them feel alive, and is a sort of political access.

The penguin scenes are based on a support group Palahniuk attended, where he found a power animal, which was a penguin in his case.

According to screenwriter Jim Uhls, the story is “about numbness, alienation and finding self-empowerment through drastic means”. A theme is about breaking yourself apart to build something new.

The film is about the causes of violence. The Columbine shooting incident at the time really sensitised people and Fight Club became a very visible and easy target for blame. I think critics like Roger Ebert may have misunderstood the film by calling it “a celebration of violence”. My own opinion is we have become so used to violence and profanity from Hollywood, that maybe you need to go to extremes like in Fight Club to get through to people these days?

It’s also a cautionary tale, to rebel can be life-changing but if you just join another group and again become a mindless thoughtless follower, then you are not independent. It’s a replacement, but not a solution. An interpretation I read in slantmagazine argues that Tyler Durden is just a literal manifestation of a ridiculous male fantasy—a fantasy every bit as manufactured as the desire for a big-screen TV. And that the Fight Club and its terrorist offshoot, Project Mayhem, are just more false support groups.

Pete from I Love That Film made an interesting point in his my movie influence post: "It’s even more potent now since the events of 9/11. This attack on capitalism is less liberating and more frightening since 2001, as we realize that groups of young men can be so easily led to committing acts of extreme violence against a system they hate."

On the dvd, actor Edward Norton talks about how the violence in Fight Club doesn’t represent entertainment, instead the story is proof that violence can be examined in our mainstream culture through art, he thinks you shouldn’t be afraid to shed light on difficult issues. In an interview Norton remarked: “And I think you would erase most of the serious discussion about our dysfunctions if you did that. I don't think it's the responsibility of filmmakers to account for every possible misinterpretation of a film that you might make”(…) a big part of the intent of this was to point a finger at certain things and name them, and dump it in your lap and say, "What do you want to make of that"
Norton also argues: That the idea of the fighting is not about the suggestion that violence directed outward toward other people is a solution to your frustrations. It's very much a metaphor for self-transforming radicalism, the idea of directing violence inward at your own presumptions. Tyler doesn't walk out of the bar and say, "Can I hit you," he says "Will you hit me?" It's this idea that you need to get shaken out of your own cocoon. The fighting is a metaphor for stripping yourself of received notions and value systems that have been applied to you that aren't your own. And freeing yourself to discover who you actually are" And Edward Norton adds: The violence of the fight clubs serves as a metaphor for feeling, rather than to promote or glorify physical combat.

Critic Ross Grason Bell: “I really thought the film would change the world. It shocks you into looking at who really controls your life, you or your fears? Film critic Adrian Gargett points out: “The Narrator can only define himself in terms of male, consumer, insurance worker, insomniac, but he feels that he has lost any sense of self. He is confined by the mechanisms society adopts for categorization"
Filmmaker Jethro Rothe-Kushel argues, Without Tyler, the narrator is a spineless, volumeless, emotionless, placid, and flaccid half-man. His creation of Tyler allows him to reclaim his masculinity amidst a culture of post-feminist, cathartic, self-help groups. The film frames America lacking a public venue to integrate the emotional component of white male identity. When there is a communal or cultural void, history suggests that violence can complete that lack. Fight Club exposes the void and offers three solutions: crying, violence, and movies. It asks the question, what do you want to do with the Narrators of our country - those unwanted children of America who were raised on cultural action hero myths and yearn to live those stories?"

The book/movie contains a number of great quotes, some of which blogger 'Whatever you are be a good one' I follow shared in her review

It’s difficult for me to understand how director David Fincher after a controversial and groundbreaking film such as Fight Club would choose to direct such risk-free mainstream films as Panic Room, and Benjamin Button. Admittedly, Zodiac and Seven had things I liked and are very good in there own right. The Social Network was an entertaining portrait of Mark Zuckerberg, but a little on the safe side I thought, not really addressing issues about social networking it could have delved into.

Who could forget the powerful climax in Fight Club, gave me chills in the cinema, with The Pixies song Where is my mind? blasting away. The ending is possibly my most memorable cinematic experience, the two characters standing next to each other who exchange a few words, I too looked at my best friend at the time sitting next to me, and we didn’t say anything, just smiled, we knew we were witnessing a historic movie moment.

So why watch? The film has that rare knack of being able to change your outlook on life, like Jack's perspective on the world was forever altered, for better of worse, who's to say. No sequel exists (thank god) ( :

My rating is 10/10. Surpasses the original book it was based on, even the author admitted he thought the film was better than his own novel, haha ( :

Readers, any thoughts on Fight Club?




  1. This was one of the few movies to shock me and blow me away. I'm a bit jaded, so this is hard to do. I've always wanted to watch it again, but there's so many movies I haven't seen. You're making me want to take sit right now!

  2. @Colleen--it's a very different movie the second time, particularly in your reaction to Marla.

    This is a very thoughtful analysis of this film, and I tend to agree with a lot of what you say here. I wasn't 18 in 1999 when I saw this--I was 31, which made me a prime candidate for joining Project Mayhem. It affected me on a lot of levels.

    One of the great comments on the Norton/Pitt/Fincher commentary track is how much heat this film took for violence--yet only one person dies on screen. In the same year, cinematic bloodbaths The Matrix and Braveheart also came out and no one said word one about the violence in those films.

    Very insightful write-up!

  3. Ah, a great film indeed. And what you said about it being representative of a generation - that's so true about this deliriously visceral, entertaining and disturbing film.

    I would however like to differ that Fincher went soft after the film just because his other films weren't anarchistic. Agreed, Panic Room & Benjamin Button weren't worth being part of his filmography. However, Seven & Zodiac were almost as good as Fight Club for me. And as for Social Network, it was never meant to be about the pros & cons of social networking anyway.

    Anyway, those apart, it was really great reading your impassioned and attention-grabbing review of, as you rightly opined, one of the best films of 90's.

  4. you went ahead of me, Chris =) I never watched the movie and because I catch a great quote I get from twitter I felt like I should see the movie.

  5. @Colleen: Definitely holds up to repeat viewings, there is so much going on.

    @Movie Guy Steve : Happy you enjoyed my review. When I said 18 was the right age for me was because I see Jacks rebellion as sort of teenage behaviour(I could relate to), or at least Jack wanting to return to youthful mischief, which he has lost touch with. I can totally understand the film was powerful when you were 31 in 1999, as Jack is about 30-years-old.
    Yes, is kind of weird there is only one visible death. Then again, I would admit the violence is not for everyone. It’s better to use the violence as a discussion topic rather than glorify combat..

    @Shubhajit: Thanks for the praise, buddy. Well, Fincher’s later films were not anarchistic, true enough. Still, I would much prefer to see him directing more indie-type films which Fight Club essentially is in my opinion, probably won’t happen now that he is a household name. Same goes for Darren Aronofsky, much prefer his earlier indie films.

    @Andina: Fight Club is full of meaningful and provocative quotes ( :

  6. Very nice and detailed post. I retweeted it. Thanks for mentioning me! :)

  7. @ Arpik : I also enjoyed your review of fight club, see you around in the blogosphere ( :

  8. I think it is awful. Its entire argument against monotony and adulthood is hard to accept in adulthood.

  9. @James D : I don't think it's against adulthood, mainly against being controlled by the media and advertising.
    As you say, can be tough or impossible to be an original with group pressure and the responsibilites of making a living/family/friends/etc.

  10. I still on the process to understand the movie as a whole. The movie is so smart, deep and ones that won't forget easy in mind after watching it.

    Though I understood more about the fighting metaphor, some people could easily think the movie had too much violence and not consumable for young people. But it's good that it effected you in a good way when you're young.

    I gotta say, when I watched it I thought 'what is it about guys wanting to fight all the time? is it more primal than I thought? do they do this because they want to look more like a man?' I might be less understood it because I'm a girl.

    But it's nice to know one of your most influenced movies. Great review, Chris.

  11. @Andina: Does take a fair amount of time to understand the movie, that's what makes it memorable for me. I can understand you find the violence a bit much at times(so did I), maybe you're right and it is more of a "guy movie", dealing with issues of male agression. Luckily I never felt in real life I needed to fight to look more like a man and get confidence! You can use your energy in many different ways. On the other hand, I can follow how Jack has become numb and bored in his office job and needs a change to feel more alive, maybe the answer for Jack was Marla ,and not the fighting. Thanks for reading ( :

  12. Bloody fantastic! And thanks for putting me in there! I feel very proud! Glad to hear someone who loves this film as much as I do.

    Very impressed you didn't reveal the twist ALL the way through. I thought it would be impossible to write this much about the film without letting that slip!

    Just goes to show how utterly brilliant this film is that we both have written pieces on it and still, there is so much more we could write about it!

    Here's to many more Fight Club related posts!

    1. Thanks Pete! Yes that is a conscious choice on my part NOT to spoil the twist. A never-ending discussion, I agree.
      Just this morning I was pondering Fight Club again.
      Perhaps it's the ill-considered idea of liberation from the norm, that has a struck a chord with audiences, more so than actual freedom.
      As Kieslowski's Blue (1993) told us, it can be tough to deal with freedom, once you are there.

  13. Frustruates me to no end that I haven't seen this film! It's on my Movie Bucket List though.

    1. @alleyandthemovies: Ally, you're in for a treat, if you haven't watched Fight Club yet. If there was one film I could watch for the first time again, this would be at the top of my list.


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