If you ever watched David Fincher’s electrifying 1999 movie Fight Club and thought, “We should start a fight club!” then congratulations, you have missed the point of Fight Club. When the film was released twenty years ago today, it was a lukewarm success at the box office, garnering only $100 million worldwide off a $63 million budget. However, thanks to the burgeoning DVD market, Fight Club quickly found its audience thanks to one of the best DVD releases of all-time packed with special features and a message that resonated with audiences. However, that message has been misinterpreted over the years, and could be due to Fincher’s desire to make Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) so appealing that some folks didn’t see what the larger movie was going for.
For those that need a brief recap, Fincher’s movie, based off Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel of the same name, follows an unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) who suffers from insomnia. Initially able to prey off support groups for the emotional catharsis they provide, that outlet is ruined when he encounters Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), who’s also a “faker.” Once again cursed with insomnia, the narrator eventually crosses paths with Tyler Durden, a handsome and charismatic soap salesman who lives the way the narrator wishes he could live. After the narrator’s apartment explodes, he asks for help from Tyler, and Tyler agrees to take him in on the condition that he “hit him as hard as he can.” This interaction blossoms into Fight Club which transforms into increasingly destructive acts against society. The narrator eventually realizes that he is Tyler Durden and he’s been interacting with a figment of his imagination. He shoots himself in the head, killing Tyler but only hitting the narrator’s cheek. The narrator finally accepts that he loves Marla and needs to be rid of Tyler while Tyler’s actions cause the destruction of the credit card companies around them, potentially setting off a worldwide financial panic and the collapse of society.
The reason Fight Club is so easy to misunderstand is that Fincher beautifully sets up both the narrator’s depression and Tyler’s appeal. The narrator is a victim of capitalism, unable to forge real human connections so instead he fills his life with stuff. Then you have Tyler who, at the outset, espouses an alluring philosophy. Tyler represents “freedom” from the modern world. He isn’t dependent on anything. He steals the fat he needs for soap and works odd jobs that allow him to pull juvenile pranks on the world. Tyler, portrayed with utmost confidence by Pitt, has everything figured out and speaks to a post-capitalist malaise where men, trapped by crummy jobs and “cheated” out the things they were “promised” (being millionaires, movie gods, and rock stars), can only feel alive by beating the crap out of each other in darkened basements.
These elements—the grotesqueness of the narrator’s existence coupled with the appeal of Tyler’s offer—are meant to bring us into the understanding of why anyone would find a fight club interesting in the first place. Fincher puts our sympathies with the narrator, which makes sense since he’s the protagonist. We have to go where he goes and Fincher knows that the audience isn’t just going to automatically accept living in a dilapidated home and punching other dudes for jollies. If Fight Club has a problem, it’s that Fincher makes that lifestyle so interesting that some audience members don’t follow the turn into rejection and seeing why Tyler’s philosophy is so deeply flawed.
Tyler Durden’s philosophy is essentially one that pinpoints a real problem—the disconnect of the postmodern age fueled by capitalism and alienation—and offers a child’s solution. The narrator is offered a connection with someone real who is actually on his wavelength—Marla—and he rejects her like a small boy who kicks a girl in the shins because he can’t express that he likes her (it should be noted that the small boy’s behavior isn’t worth condoning, but this is how small boys express themselves). Instead, he retreats to a childish impulse of a group of immature men hitting each other in a private club while in their personal time they play pranks on the world under the banner of “rebellion.”
Where the reaction to Fight Club falls apart isn’t that the film is “unclear” (I don’t think Fincher should have to hold the audience’s hand when he and screenwriter Jim Uhls are fairly direct in what they’re trying to do), it’s that there are some audience members who can’t tell the difference between condoning the actions of Tyler and his cronies and condemning them. Because Tyler’s initial criticism lands, we’re supposed to follow him wherever he goes rather than seeing him for the maniacal cult leader he is. Tearing down society completely so you can have a pair of leather pants that lasts you the rest of your life is what a teenage boy thinks about changing the world. It’s not a real solution, and Tyler has no solutions. He just offers violence, chaos, and self-destruction and calls them wisdom.
Fight Club doesn’t offer answers to the struggles of the world, but a critique. It’s not a celebration of directionless men, but rather that the modern world had commodified everything to the point where toxic masculinity becomes its own brand. Time has proven that assessment disturbingly prescient as groups like incels lash out at a world they feel owes them something while failing to look at their own noxious behavior. Tyler’s maxim, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything,” sounds tempting, but it’s a line about freedom for the sake of self-indulgence rather than responsibility towards others. That’s why the narrator’s arc works at the end. He has rejected this mewling, selfish sensibility to open himself up to Marla. Tyler Durden never once offers emotional connection but merely the illusion of it when it comes after a physical beating.
If a group of people consistently misses the point of Fight Club, does that make Fight Club a bad movie? Does it undermine its core theme? I don’t think that it does because it’s not like the film is universally misunderstood or that the Fincher and Uhls didn’t know where they wanted to take this story. What Fight Club understands is that the modern male is in an incredibly tenuous place when he becomes disconnected from his own emotions and healthy ways of expressing those emotions. The narrator starts the film not looking for violence, but simply for an emotional outlet and in a darkly comic fashion goes to a support group. But what he’s really looking for is emotional connection, and while a fight club may offer memorable rules, it offers neither truth nor understanding, only violence.