Warning: Of course there are spoilers.
Fight Club is not a movie to be taken as seriously its creators intended. It tries to make philosophical points that are very hard not to dismiss once one is an adult. But this does not mean that it cannot be a great film. Much of the best art, particularly pop art, conveys an unbelievably cynical outlook. No reasonable person could take the worldview of Radiohead, The Sex Pistols, or The Sopranos as anything but expressions of a depressed outlook. The power of work like this — bitter, angry, cynical — is as a release. They are all about outrage at all the world itself, an emotion felt by even the most well balanced people.
The plot has three basic phases. The first, which many critics prefer to the later two, is a general exposition of the life of Edward Norton’s unnamed character. He has a scarily average upper-middle class life as a traveling insurance assessor. Needing some sort of feeling, he goes to meetings of a group of men with testicular cancer. After this he meets a man named Tyler (played by Brad Pitt), who introduces him first to some interesting ideas about living simply, and slowly helps him create an underground club where frustrated workers beat each other up. In the third section, the movie possibly goes too far, turning Tyler into the leader of an anarchist terror group.
Viewed with some distance, the first section is brilliant, requiring no qualification. The final two thirds are where the tone becomes extreme. At this point, violence and finally the destruction of large buildings are considered at worst an overreaction, but a completely understandable one. This goes with the misanthropy that weakens every Fincher movie, with “Gone Girl” suffering most. But his style is a perfect match for the view. The cleanness and precision Fincher is famous for are a great contrast with the characters’ love of destruction.
As everyone agrees, Norton and Pitt are the perfect pair. Norton is an everyman, but cynical and defeated. His character somewhat resembles the sort of disillusioned wanderer common to the French 60’s arthouse, but Norton is likable in a way Belmondo and Mastrianni never were. You have a feeling that he would dream up Tyler if only to have an adventure. Pitt is a more intense version of his common slick-leader type. He sells the pseudo-profound speeches as well as anyone could. His speech is a mix of a sermon and a pep talk. Helena Bonham Carter is a great femme fatale, going to cancer group therapy sessions for fun and laughing at the idea that it could be called immoral.
Whatever contrivances are needed for the ending to take shape, the last scene is one of the best in Fincher’s career. The narrator and Marla stare on as buildings are destroyed while “Where is My Mind” plays in the background. It is one of the best uses of music in all of 90s cinema.
Tony Schwab is a staff writer for Washington Square News.