The American dream unravelled: 20 years of Fight Club

Released on the cusp of the new millennium, David Fincher’s cult classic Fight Club predicted many of the 21st century’s most volatile undercurrents in its study of aggrieved manhood and toxic alpha males.

Amy Simmons

Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club (1999)

  • Spoiler warning: This article gives away the ending

Few contemporary filmmakers know how to harness the power of darkness better than David Fincher. A unique visual storyteller, a master of deception and a true innovator, the director’s extensive output has always been audacious, disturbing and subversive.

From Se7en (1995) to The Game (1997), Zodiac (2007) to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Gone Girl (2014) to House of Cards (2013-18) and, most recently, the crime series Mindhunter (2017-19), Fincher has delved deep into the inhumane, antisocial, arrogant and toxic behaviour of our fractured society. Notable for their focus on commodity fetishism, dystopian despair and moral breakdown, Fincher’s films are equally distinctive for their postmodern cynicism.

In his controversial and zeitgeist-flavoured cult classic Fight Club, adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel and starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt at the peak of their popularity, Fincher brings the dehumanising effects of corporate/consumer culture to the forefront, while offering up a scathing critique on the societal definition of masculinity and the destructive paths men take in order to reach an unrealistic ideal.

An unabashed depiction of turn-of-the-millennium modernity and manhood as essentially fragmented beyond repair, Fight Club is contradictory down to its very marrow, and its disturbing extremes speak of broad and deeply felt moral, social and political anxieties. Just like the modern-day culture it portrays, the film is literally and figuratively torn apart by opposing ideas – about life and death, contentment and despair, harmony and disorder.

In the 20 years that have elapsed since Fight Club first pummelled audiences and divided critics, it has undergone an intriguing cultural journey, from financial and critical disappointment to cult status to generational statement to becoming a film that’s been embraced by the alpha males it lambasts. It’s also an astoundingly prophetic piece of cinema, still as relevant as the morning paper, and more ideologically complex than either end of the spectrum had realised.

Drenched in a grimy, bruised and beaten aesthetic, and awash in near-constant dualities, Fight Club shows what can happen if a prank is pushed to extremes or if a destructive ideology is permitted to take hold unchecked. While seemingly warning of the dangers of mob mentalities, blind loyalty and the persuasive powers of mental instability, however, the film’s ideas would later metastasise into real-life 21st-century America, capturing perfectly both the particular discontents of the 90s and the madness (both geopolitical and especially economic) that would erupt globally in the years to come.

Fight Club came out when the internet was in its infancy, a decade before most people began to join the world of social networking, but, with its alter ego concept, the film – and Palahniuk’s book before it – anticipated a time when individuals could create their own online identities to act out their darker impulses. Given what we now know about incels, MRAs and the increasing popularity of open fascism, the film deftly foreshadowed the murky paths that anonymous individuals would be led down.

At the time of the film’s release, the plot might have read as far-fetched in its suggestion that social outcasts could be recruited and radicalised by extremists groups; that it’d be the loners who would help usher chaos through terrorism in order to “reset” the existing social and economic system. However, today it’s impossible to view Fight Club and not recall the events of 9/11 when, in the final shot, two financial towers detonate and collapse as Jack (Norton) and Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) look on from a vantage point earlier dubbed “Ground Zero” by Tyler Durden (Pitt). 

Set in an unidentified, semi-stylised city, Fight Club circles around its unreliable narrator, Jack, a Kafka-esque drone stuck in a dead-end corporate job that has rendered him “a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct”. Socially isolated, spiritually numb and emasculated by a capitalist machine that has deadened his heroic desires, he’s unable to sleep, and generally experiences chronic mental health problems.

As a way of alleviating his insomnia, Jack fixates on the sympathy of self-help groups where he strives to find catharsis in other people’s struggles. He reluctantly shares his perverse addiction with on-off love interest Marla, a despised fellow misery “tourist” who is also faking her way through the groups because, as she puts it, they are “cheaper than a movie, and there’s free coffee”.

Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club (1999)

Meanwhile, something obviously has to give, and it does when Jack runs into soap salesmen Tyler Durden on the plane home from a business trip. Flamboyant, reckless, uninhibited and, above all, free, Durden personifies conformity’s flip side – the embodiment of everything that Jack isn’t. Likewise, he’s the reactionary incarnation of a “generation of men raised by women” who don’t want to be their job, or their apartment, or any of the other trivial things that govern their lives. Playing rampaging id to Jack’s buttoned-up ego, Durden not only reinforces Jack’s ideas about the mediocrity of the American Dream and modern society stifling men, but also encourages him to embrace the caveman within.

After a mysterious explosion destroys Jack’s apartment – where all of the things that “owned him” are blown out the window – he moves into Durden’s decaying mansion in the ‘toxic waste’ part of town. In sharp contrast to the dreary milieu of Jack’s prosaic daytime world of offices, hotels and public spaces, Durden inhabits a disorderly realm of eccentric dilapidation. With scum coating the walls, fetid water dripping through the crumbling plaster and erupting from the plumbing fixtures, the house reeks of decay and primal urges, suggesting a shadowy, subconscious underworld.

Here, under the tutelage of Durden, they start up a fight club, a place where disenfranchised men can go to strip themselves of societal expectations and, for a few bloody moments in the ring, experience true glory and self-worth, testing their strength on a visceral, primitive level.

Later, Durden’s ambitions grow beyond the confines of the fighting circle, and he convinces his followers to disrupt corporate and social institutions before transforming the club into a nationwide, underground terrorist group, Project Mayhem, whose ultimate act is the aforementioned destruction of the financial towers.

Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club (1999)

On the eve of Durden’s catastrophic attack, however, Jack makes one final discovery – that he and Durden are one and the same – and the battle lines between conformity and revolt are drawn between Jack and his parasitic alter ego. After sticking a gun in his mouth, he pulls the trigger – but it’s Durden who falls to the floor.

We leave the splintered world of Fight Club on a dubious note indeed. While Jack has renounced Durden’s militia-like terrorism, it appears as a meaningless gesture of resistance. In the film’s closing shot, as the phallic skyscrapers of late capitalism come tumbling down, Jack reaches for Marla’s hand, offering a glimmer of hope – but the romantic illusion is doomed, and an intoxicating but ultimately futile escape fantasy from a world of violence, humiliation and self-betrayal is created.

In this sense, it’s of little importance that we are unable to solve conclusively the mercurial structure of the film. On the contrary, Fight Club rightly makes us more conscious of the horrors of a society in which everyone is suspect and everything uncertain. 

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