Brutal, testosterone-laden spectacle for modern gladiatorial voyeurs, or thought-provoking examination of the modern mindset of the ordinary man? Fight Club has been likened to Clockwork Orange, and with good reason.
EN (Edward Norton) is a young man working as an insurance evaluator for a car firm. He spends much of his life on the road or in aeroplanes travelling, when not searching for happiness by buying matching furniture and other modern accoutrements for his flat. Troubled by insomnia, he attempts to find meaning in his life by going to support groups for various problems - testicular cancer and similar dire ailments - even though he suffers from none of these himself, thus acting as a sort of parasite on the emotions of the genuine sufferers in the groups. This works well until he encounters (Helena Bonham-Carter), a rough-looking female who is attending the same groups for the same reasons as himself. Forced to halve his weekly attendances so that they can both continue this course of action, he is thus looking for another outlet when he encounters Tyler Dearden (Brad Pitt) on an airline trip. At first he gives Dearden's careless philosophy of life little thought, but when he comes back home he finds that his flat has been burnt out in a fire. He contacts Dearden and goes out for a few beers with him that night, during which Dearden agrees to put him up in his own home for a while. At the same time they suddenly find that they like hitting each other. This becomes a ritual at night as they fight in public places (car parks, etc), with other male onlookers eventually joining in the one-on-one combat. Soon it becomes known as "Fight Club", a clandestine bare-knuckle boxing group that meets in a basement. But EN soon finds that this is only the beginning of something much bigger.
Although many - perhaps too many - films in recent years have featured elements of violence, even if dressed up in a sociological setting, few have seriously attempted to examine the motivation behind acts of violence, even in a cathartic form. Fight Club is such a film, although it should be added that the twist in the ending may perhaps muddy the waters a little.
It should be stressed firstly that the film does not glorify violence. The bare-knuckle fights are often bloody, and even if the combatants embrace afterwards, the damage done by such pugilism is made obvious in the physical wounds shown on some of the fighters. The later escalation to terrorism, albeit of a nihilistic kind, is similarly shown to be ugly rather than noble. Nevertheless where the film succeeds so well is in showing why modern males might well be attracted to this sort of society or movement. Before he starts Fight Club, EN is a directionless man with no joy in his job and who is defined by what he purchases from catalogues, seeking happiness firstly in his material goods (and even towards these he does not seem particularly fervent) and then from the love and emotional warmth he falsely evokes in the "victims" in the support groups. As he gets involved in the primeval form of man-to-man combat, he seems to find purpose - as he says in his narrative, he now only lives for the hours of darkness. Another prime example is (Meatloaf), whom EN first encounters as a lost and tragic soul at the support group for testicular cancer. Having had his testes removed, Meatloaf now has breasts like a woman and goes around embracing other sufferers encouraging them to cry as he sobs himself. Once attracted to Fight Club, he becomes as pugilistic as the rest. Later we see him standing outside the house of Dearden and EN in a paramilitary uniform for three days to volunteer for "training". Finally, the ranks of the movement are swollen by lower-paid service workers, such as waiters, who might be considered to be deprived of real power in modern society (low pay, unsociable hours, little chance to influence events) or white-collar workers who in real life may sometimes feel that the absence of physical effort and even danger causes their masculinity to be lacking somehow. This is where I feel the film scores most strongly, in spotlighting the feelings of emasculation that a large number of modern men feel. Even the slide into urban terrorism later in the film seems motivated as much by the men's desire to "empower themselves" as any desire to hit back at capitalist oppression or the system - earlier on Dearden encapsulates this sort of passive resistance by urinating into food dishes while serving as a waiter, or inserting brief pornographic clips into filmreels in his cinema job.
Just as controversial is the twist in the tale. Without going into details and spoiling the film for anybody who hasn't seen it, it should be said that some people found it unconvincing, at least when they went back in the film to see if it fitted everything that had gone before. However, it may be said in the defence of this development that the latter part of the film begins to develop a slightly surreal element which mirrors EN's insomnia (and no doubt subsequent state of mind) in the first half.
Edward Norton is of course recognised as a fine actor, and he plays well here. The real revelation for many, though, was Brad Pitt, who has sometimes been written off as more of a hunk than a serious actor. His portrayal of the nihilistic Dearden, a man trying to revert to primitive simplicity and freedom while simaltaneously amassing ever-increasing power over others, is frighteningly convincing. Helena Bonham-Carter gives the impression in this film that she was trying to move away from her stereotypical "Merchant Ivory" roles as Ophelia-like heroines and certainly succeeds in this, although it makes her character far from likeable or even sexually attractive. Meatloaf also carries off his role effectively.
If anything, Fight Club favours well in comparison with Clockwork Orange. It does not leave the lingering bad taste in the mouth that the older film does, and I am not aware of any copycat movements or behaviour springing up as happened in the wake of Kubrick's movie. While it might be stretching things a bit to call it a family movie, it is one that might be suitable for discussion for older children and teenagers.
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