Oh, “Fight Club.” The movie that convinced thousands of white boys that they could pull off a red leather jacket over a Hawaiian shirt.
“Fight Club” is the story of an unnamed narrator, played by Edward Norton (“Birdman”). He’s an ordinary guy who works for a boring software company until he meets Tyler Durden, an almost impossibly cool soap-maker/unemployed handsome man, played by Brad Pitt (“The Big Short”). From there, fight clubs form and chaos ensues.
Despite having my fair share of angsty boys in high school tell me that I couldn’t possibly hope to understand this movie with my girl brain, I really do get why it’s so beloved. It’s got Brad Pitt in his prime, Helena Bonham Carter (“Sweeney Todd”) at her Helena Bonham Carter-iest and Jared Leto (“Suicide Squad”) gets punched in the face. Add an awesome Pixies song, and it sounds like the recipe for a perfect movie.
But this isn’t quite right, is it? That’s not really what draws people to “Fight Club.” Its most enticing aspect is a little harder to define. It’s one of those movies that inspires a kind of manic energy when it’s finished. You want to find someone to talk about it with because it’s just so visceral. Or forget about talking: let’s do something about all this anger, man.
It’s this feeling that inspired the creation of dozens of real fight clubs and even a few Project Mayhem imitations throughout the U.S. after the movie’s 1999 premiere, and even today. Just last year in my Arizona high school, two students were hospitalized after having a fight club in the boy’s bathroom. Of course, because it’s 2016 and not 1999, and the concept of a fight club was apparently due for a timely update, the only reason they were caught was because a third person filmed the whole thing and put it on his Snapchat story.
At its surface, “Fight Club” is a movie about the middle class masses (of men) fighting the oppressive banality and conformity of modern society through literal fist fights and the occasional blowing up of public buildings. They go back to a more primal masculinity, one not governed by bosses or IKEA furniture or schedules or all those pesky women. But if you dig a little deeper (and by “a little deeper” I mean, “understanding the plot of the movie”), you find that the movie doesn’t really advocate these ideas. The characters might, but the film’s core absolutely doesn’t. The use of violence as a way to vent frustrations about perceived emasculation in modern society escalates from fight clubs to Project Mayhem, an anarchist organization dedicated to tearing down the institutions that promote conformity. The only problem is that Project Mayhem devolves into a depersonalized army, where its members are trained to be so homogenous that they’re basically just cannon fodder.
And then there’s Tyler Durden. Generally considered among “Fight Club’s” fanbase to be pretty much the coolest person ever, Tyler is hedonism personified. It’s Tyler who throws around all these ideas about non-conformity and the lost generation of men who are out of touch with their “primal urges.” And yet, even though Tyler decries society’s rules, he also somehow encourages a version of masculinity that actually fits in pretty well with established ideas of manliness.
It’s no mistake that Tyler dies at the end of the movie. He has to die. A shadow self like Tyler creates nothing; he only destroys. When the narrator realizes that Tyler and his ideals have been sucking the life out of him, he destroys him and everything he represents. This isn’t a wild interpretation. This is the text of the movie, which is why it’s always baffled me that hordes of teenage and college-aged boys see this particular film as a call to arms.
I think “Fight Club” has this effect because it operates on two principles: catharsis and consequence. The first three quarters of the movie offer an incredibly fulfilling catharsis for a very real anxiety surrounding modern masculinity, through the promise that men can find solidarity if they only tap into something dark, buried deep inside. But the movie then shows the consequences of that unchecked rage. The problem is, the diehard fans of “Fight Club,” the ones who believe they truly have a right to act on every urge and manifest all of their anger, just can’t seem to accept that the consequences exist. The catharsis is just too enticing.
The film’s director, David Fincher (“Gone Girl”) said it best at Comic-Con 2010: “My daughter had a friend named Max. She told me ‘Fight Club’ is his favorite movie. I told her never to talk to Max again.”
“Fight Club” fanboys, I speak to you directly now. It’s been 17 years. Please, for the love of god, stop talking about “Fight Club.”