Despite generally positive reviews, the movie barely broke even worldwide its estimated budget of 63 mln US$. Domestically in the US, it was basically a flop. But it quickly reached a “cult” status, being able to strike a nerve in the society of the late 90s, talking as it was very directly to the disillusioned “Generation X” who was coming to maturity.
The story is extremely powerful and can be very seductive due to the excellent writing full of memorable quotes, the brilliant direction, and outstanding performances by all the main actors.
David Fincher was coming from the music industry, having directed video clips of names such as Billy Idol, Iggy Pop, Sting and (especially) Madonna. In cinema, after the dubious start with “Alien3” (read it “Alien cube”, the first of a long series of bad “Alien” movies that continues to date), he had acquired fame and status with the memorable and skin crawling “Se7en”.
He prefers to work with characters on the edge of mental sanity (“Alien3”, “Se7en”, “The Game”, “Zodiac”, “The Social Network”, “Gone Girl”… well, always, I would say!), and is able to create a delicate balance in which the line between sanity and insanity becomes really blurred, with the most deranged characters sometimes resulting very likable, relatable and seducing.
“Fight Club” is no exception. However, the story describes a spiral of self-hate, misogyny and destruction, and (almost) nobody gets out of it alive, or unharmed. It’s a journey to hell, where flames burns hot. I feel it’s important to say this, before we dive deep into the analysis. Cult-like as it is, its content needs to be handled with care and by a mature audience.
Meta-note: all throughout the article, I will use references to the Hero’s Journey (also called Monomyth), as the universal model for story structure theorized by Joseph Campbell. You can read more about it here (and in a lot of other places, like… a library). I will also include links to the series of posts I originally wrote to describe in detail its different stages.
Oh and, wait, there will be spoilers, but the movie has been out for 20 years, so I’d say you had enough time to watch it.
The story structure seems elaborate, but it’s really as minimalist as Swedish furniture. (Ah-ah, got that?)
There are three main characters, two of which are actually different sides of the same personality. So the whole story revolves around two figures:
The Narrator (that’s right, he never gets called by his name), played by Edward Norton; and his double personality, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt);
and Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter).
It’s a bit disappointing to notice that only the Narrator gets a real character arc (in the proper sense of initial situation-transformation-resolve). Tyler and Marla are rather bi-dimensional, their characteristics are set at the beginning of the story and remain more or less constant throughout the story, shaping the events. The Narrator, instead, is shaped by them and reacts dynamically.
Represents a certain down-to-earth quality. It’s a ray of sanity and balance in the midst of so much madness. She is insane, but she is aware of it, and she seems to have reached a somehow functioning balance. Bonham Carter fits her role like a tailor made glove. In a plot that revolves so much around misogyny, it’s somewhat comforting to see that she is there, rather indifferent to the events, and she holds water. She will be several times the engine that puts parts of the story in motion, as we will see, and keeps the main character in check.
Very interesting and seductive, this is the Luciferine, Harlequin-esque side of the Narrator’s personality. He is free, violent, dirty and pure. He is Mister Hyde as much as the Narrator is the doctor Jekyll (Marla actually acknowledges the meta-reference openly). He knows no fear. Tyler is pure, raw masculine sexual energy (did I say “toxic” already? Well, I will say it again). Yet, also thanks to the memorable and fiery presence of the young Brad Pitt, he is charismatic and irresistible. At least at the beginning. He appears extremely lucid in his folly, and always “has a plan, in a Tyler kind of way”.
Sheepish and passive, the character played by Edward Norton starts as being a full and unaware victim of the consumeristic society of the late 90s. He lives alone in a prestigious condo, his main concern at the moment being “what kind of dining set defines me as a person?”.
Which is even more absurd because, as we will learn soon, he doesn’t eat at home much. Maybe never at all.
The Narrator’s initial condition is one of impotence. Not necessarily in a sexual sense: he lacks agency, the ability to affect his own reality. He cannot create anything, therefore he cannot live his life.
He doesn’t cook, he is completely unproductive, even his job consists in being a witness to other people’s car accidents, and mindlessly applying formulas to retire faulty cars. He is an algorithm, the perfect corporate drone. As a result, his psyche is in pieces. Unable to live his life, he can just witness it as it runs out,
and is obsessed with death, often flirting with the idea,
fascinated by cancer and degenerative conditions. As he starts the story, he is stuck in this cycle of life-not-life, expressed by his insomnia.
The Story Arc: the First Act.
Let’s jump into the plot line.
The story starts from the end. The two main characters are facing each other, and we are introduced to the conflict: the Protagonist has a problem with a certain Tyler Durden.
Right now, the problem has the shape of the barrel of a gun. Precisely, the one Tyler Durden holds in the Narrator’s mouth. The situation seems to have escalated a little beyond a simple communication issue.
To explain why things ended up so wrong, the point of view fast rewinds to the beginning, and the whole story is presented as a flash back. This choice has of course consequences, because the audience will from now on follow the plot with the “seeded” awareness that the two main characters will reach a final confrontation at the end.
But let’s not rush things.
We are in still the Narrator’s point of view. He starts off as a helpless victim of his perfect “ordinary” world,
which of course doesn’t make him feel fulfilled or happy in any possible way. He suffers from insomnia, and seeks medical help.
but the doctor refuses to give him drugs.
Instead, he condescendingly tells him to join a support group for testicular cancer patients, to see “what real pain is”.
Unable to face reality, and helpless against the structures of society, this is when the Narrator starts to develop his dissociative identity disorder, which manifests in the form of Tyler Durden.
It’s the first time where Tyler appears on screen, although for one frame only, behind the back of the doctor.
It’s a neat trick (and the same that Tyler uses in his night job as a projectionist). Tyler will appear several times in this “ghost” form, before actually meeting the Narrator in person. For example, in the tv advert in the hotel room:
Anyway, the Narrator is starting to slip into mental disorder. He follows the doctor’s advice, and joins the cancer support group. And it works like a charm!
This is an important moment. The theme of the movie is stated openly, maybe for the first time. In order to find freedom, the protagonist has to lose something.
But he doesn’t know what. The message is that consumeristic society entraps people in a web of illusions, artificial needs, feelings (such as hope) and passions, and in order to get to a state of real freedom, he thinks he has to get rid of feelings.
How? He will try meditation first (“New Age” philosophies are also mocked in the film, in the “secret cave” scenes), and then turn to a militant, aggressive form of Nihilism, embodied by his alter ego Tyler Durden.
This is the “ordinary world” in which the Narrator lives. It’s a state of controlled insanity. He is clearly not well, but by meeting people who are obviously in a far worse condition than his own, he is able to keep the situation under control.
Until the first inciting accident happens. He meets Marla.
Marla, also, suffers from some form of mental disorder, but her way to cope with it is different to the Narrator’s. She is casual, shameless, she walks in the testicular cancer room with nonchalance, smoking her cigarette, and also… clearly not in possession of testicles.
She plays the role of a Herald. She is here to tell our protagonist that she can see through his mask. His placebo therapies will not work anymore.
And in fact, the magic stops. The Narrator confronts her, looking for a compromise:
But it doesn’t work. The Protagonist goes back to his day-to-day routine, made of hotel rooms, insurance trips, single-use relationships, people and events. Mental sanity erodes even further.
That’s when Tyler fully appears on screen for the first time. In an airport, a non-place par excellence.
Until they actually “meet” in an airplane.
Again, the story is not subtle at all, and is full of hints that something may not be what it seems. This is not an Agatha Christie thriller. In Fincher, the culprit begs to be discovered. This is the first reaction of the Protagonist when he meets Tyler:
In another synchronicity full of consequences, the Narrator goes back home, only to find that his flat has exploded.
His reaction is of disbelief, followed by a very middle-class sense of embarrassment for what his neighbors can say, seeing the content of his fridge:
This is the explosive “Call to adventure“, anticipated by the meetings with the two Heralds (Marla and Tyler), who right now are the only two people the Protagonist has connections with. He tries calling Marla, first,
but she doesn’t reply. Then he calls Tyler. He doesn’t pick up at first, but immediately calls back.
At a symbolic level, this means that Marla (the reassuring voice of reason) cannot help. A way out is offered only by the aggressive, violent disorder represented by Tyler.
The Narrator meets him, they have a revealing conversation,
and then he asks to move in with him.
Tyler says yes, but there is a price to pay.
This represents crossing the first threshold, for the first time the Narrator enters a violent confrontation with someone, for no valid reason at all. But boy, does it feels good. It’s liberating.
The Protagonist moves in, and this represents the end of the first Act, and the transition to the second. The main characters have been introduced, the theme is established, the Protagonist’s conflict is clear (or, is it?).
The Second Act starts with the Narrator moving to Paper Street, which will be his Road of Trials.
The initial reaction is a shock (of course), but he gradually gets used to the new situation, gets rid of his comforts,
He even finds the advantages of his new life style. He has time to talk to
himself Tyler. In one of the initial exchanges, they talk about the relationships with their fathers. This is even more interesting, knowing that they are talking about the same person.
The theme, established in the first Act (the Protagonist’s meaningless existence) is further explored here. The Protagonist (and Tyler) look for life direction, asks his father (presumably belonging to the baby boomers’ generation).
Dad has no idea, and replies with trite solutions: finish school, get married. What worked for the previous generation, however, doesn’t work for the current: adolescence is prolonged, sweetened by the promises and seductions of the consumerist lifestyle.
The Narrator becomes painfully aware of it.
So, this process of self-exploration goes on. Parallel to that, Narrator-Tyler keep with their clandestine fights, soon to find out that more and more people are interested.
At first, it’s only people meeting in a parking lot. Then things start to become more serious. It’s the official opening of the first Fight Club.
In the iconic foundation sequence, the “rules” are introduced. The first (and second) are about secrecy.
Now, there is no real reason to keep it so mysterious, right? After all, it’s something like a martial arts gym for consenting adults. Unless Tyler has already some sort of twisted plan in mind, to form a secret society and break the law.
Again, on the symbolic level, this represents that “Tyler” has to keep his activity hidden, under the surface of the conscious mind.
This new form of “Fight Club” therapy really works for the Narrator. As he grows more and more conscious of his powers, he explores his personal path to salvation.
Saved. The topic of “salvation” appears several times. The character of Tyler can be seen as a reworking of Jesus: he goes through the destruction of his own body, to provide salvation to his disciples. The picture is made much more complicated by the fact that he and his first disciple are actually the same person.
Marla – again, the voice of reason – calls. She thinks she has cancer (it can very well be, or it’s just a fantasy).
The Protagonist is too busy (or too scared) to do anything, so Tyler takes over. Marla is surprised at the beginning,
but then agrees to start a relationship, and moves to the Paper Street address.
And again, it’s interesting to consider that (in this interpretation of the story) Marla represents the connection with reality, and a “healthy” (well, healthier, anyway) way to cope with mental sanity. At this stage, the Protagonist is still in complete denial and refuses any interaction with her, while Tyler is willing to get… down and dirty, but in an abusive, dominant way.
Like a loyal friend, Tyler makes it clear that the Protagonist is not interested in Marla:
although, clearly, he is.
As the situation becomes more intricate and more are involved in their scheme, Tyler puts in place mechanisms to protect himself. The Narrator promises (3 times) never to mention their relationship to anyone.
This is interesting when read at the symbolic level, because it represents the layers of defense that people affected by mental disorder are able to create to protect their version of reality. In their insanity, the Protagonist and Tyler are very lucid.
Another sign of his denial happens when the Police Department calls with news:
The explosive that destroyed his flat was home made. Irrelevant? Nothing is, in a good story. Put this information aside (“seeding“) because it will become important later on.
Need even more evidence? Marla and Tyler never appear in the same room. The Protagonist is well aware of it,
but he dismisses the detail as irrelevant, because he went through the same dynamic with his parents. A troubled relationship with parents emerges again to put his psychosis in context.
In her personal way, Marla hints at her own personal wounds as she grows more intimate. She looks for human connection.
But Tyler responds in the most brutal and insensitive way.
As his personal toxic vision emerges, there is no space for other people, or relationships based on mutual care.
The Protagonist / Tyler is incapable of deep human interactions, as he descends deeper and deeper in his own labyrinth. At this point, the diagnosis is complete.
In another key sequence, he and Tyler steal the body fat from a liposuction clinic (jumping over another symbolic threshold, a fence with barbed wire),
for what will become the main ingredient of the home made Paper Street organic soap.
Tyler, turns out, knows a lot about chemistry. He also knows how to produce explosives,
There is no time to process this information, as he involves the Narrator into a rather crude initiation ritual:
which in an explicit way represents – through “burn” (fire) and a permanent scar – the passage into a new form of existence.
Tyler acts as the Mentor (albeit a brutal one), and at the same time he is the Guardian of the multiple Thresholds that the Protagonist has to cross in his path of self discovery.
Finally “awake”, the Narrator is able to face his daily challenges with a renewed spirit. He replies in kind to his office manager, until he finds the most surprising and unthinkable way to leave his job – and keep his salary and all the benefits!
Against the oppressive nature of the capitalist society, he opposes another form of violence, self-destruction. This, he learned thanks to Tyler and the Fight Club.
The first stage of the “liberation” process from capitalism: liberation from waged work.
At this point Tyler is strong enough to take his plan to the next level. His “Fight Club” buddies are made fanatical by his messianic revelations,
and they start random acts of vandalism and sabotage against private property: expensive cars, lawns, personal computers, airline companies are targeted. All symbols of the capitalist society.
At first, it’s like a game. We also learn that new Fight Clubs are being opened in different cities.
Tyler’s plan is unfolding at full speed. He has a vision.
It is Marla – again! – who gives a different course to the story, with a powerful reality check.
It’s a key plot moment. First, she admits that sometimes “she is happy” – which sounds shocking to the Narrator, incapable as he is to feel emotions,
Then, when he mentions his relationship with Tyler (“it’s different with us”), she challenges that too. The Protagonist, again, dodges the blow and changes topic.
Tyler stays hidden and keeps manipulating him. It’s more and more evident that things are a little too much on the creepy side. Marla acknowledges it, but she is apparently comfortable with the fact that mental sanity is somewhat of a spectrum.
We are in the descending part of the story arc. Events start to accelerate.
Tyler moves into a higher gear, and starts recruiting his personal army (he calls them “space monkeys”, in a reference to the errrr… yes, brutal early years of Space Exploration),
and again, the terms he uses (“The Greater Good”) are taken directly from the narrative of any totalitarian regime or religious cult. In order to fight the Capitalist regime, Tyler is creating his own.
And so Project Mayhem starts.
One interesting fact: part of Tyler’s indoctrination of the new recruits mentions “snowflakes”, the term now widely used (mostly in a derogatory sense) to describe younger generations.
Since the Protagonist mentions to be 30 years old (in 1999), this movie was aimed directly at the Generation X (those born in and around the 70s). It was the first generation which could grow (in part of the world) with the understanding that every individual was special, unique, possibly destined to choose their path in life. In Tyler’s nihilistic view, this was a dangerous illusion, and it was important to remove it from the mind of the recruits, before they could join his army. “Snowflakes” made bad soldiers.
The Protagonist has now fully embraced his new philosophy based on (self) destruction. He is still unable to create, but he is able to destroy. As arson, vandalism, random acts of violence spread around the city (and the Chief of Police is kept quiet using drastic measures),
the Narrator also commits his own personal act of destruction, hitting “Angel Face” (the blond member of the gang, played by Jared Leto!) way harder than necessary, and leaving him permanently damaged.
The conversation with Tyler (which is basically an inner monologue) that follows is this:
It’s a blood ritual, a human sacrifice that signals that the Protagonist’s sense of humanity is dangerously slipping away.
The Second Act reaches its conclusion in the defining sequence of the car accident. After asking questions about the purpose of the project, and therefore of life,
Tyler decides it’s showdown time,
And tells the Narrator everything. Everything.
Then, he deliberately drives his car into an accident and off the road. It’s a “Dark Cave” moment, emphasized by an even darker photography and rainy scene.
After the “near-life experience”, as a “Reward” for the transformed Protagonist, Tyler reveals his ultimate vision for the world he (thinks) he is bringing about.
It’s a memorable passage, and it’s the moment when it becomes clear that Tyler is completely deranged, he is working to create a “Planet of the Apes” scenario, an apocalyptic future where humans go back to hunter-gatherer society.
“In the world I see, you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockfeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-think kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Towers. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying stripes of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned super highways”
(I know that for some readers this carries some serious appeal. I understand, Tyler’s vision is fascinating. I know the pain is real. Please don’t get at me. But – can we at least agree that killing millions of people to bring about this vision, would definitely be a bad thing?)
This must be more or less the train of though inside the Protagonist’s mind. After the car crash, he gets his revelation, but not in the form Tyler wants. Quite the opposite. He bounces back to life in a spectacular way, and regains the humanity he was about to lose.
This opens the Third Act. The Resolution.
The Narrator wakes up to find out that Tyler was gone, but Tyler’s army was definitely busy.
It’s possible to read this as the moment in which the Protagonist regains his lucidity, only to find out in growing horror that Tyler’s plan was set in motion and he could do nothing to stop it.
There is, again, a reference to a parallel between Tyler and his missing father figure,
and again when Marla comes to visit (emerging consciousness?), she receives the same answer:
She leaves without saying a word.
Things get sideways when Robert, one of the “space monkeys” gets killed in action,
and the Narrator’s attempt to give him some humanity only backfires.
The troops are now completely fanatical, and there is no way to bring things back.
The Narrator tries to understand the details of Tyler’s plan by following his bread crumbs trail around the country, and it is in a way a “Journey Back Home” (“home” is sanity), only to finally receive his moment of defining truth (or finally accept it) by a badly scarred bartender:
Shocked by his final realization, the Narrator confronts Tyler (an elegant solution to describe inner monologue again):
He understand that Marla is in danger (she always knew they were the same person), and meets her for a defining conversation:
The first moment in which the Protagonist appears able to have and express deep, sincere human feelings. Is he in recovery? Marla is shocked by the turn of events:
And one nice touch, as he sends her off to an unknown destination, the conversation happens outside a cinema featuring “Seven Years in Tibet“.
Turning in to the police doesn’t work, Tyler’s army controls all the working class professions, and so the Narrator runs out and tries to stop the bombings personally.
There he has his final confrontation with Tyler, fight scene that Tyler effortlessly wins, and cut to…
… where the whole story started. Ground Zero.
There is also one moment in which the Protagonist is fully aware he is meta-telling a meta-story, break the fourth wall and talks about his own flashback:
Tyler tries his persuasion techniques once again on the Protagonist,
but this time, things are different. The Hero has evolved:
he places the gun directly into his mouth, and fires.
Incredibly (!) the bullet exits the back of his neck without killing him, but the trauma is enough to eliminate Tyler once and for all.
Well. That’s a quick resolve, after all the psychoanalytical sophistication of the first and second Act, but hey, this is the ending, after all. Nobody wants to watch a movie where the Protagonist spends twenty years in therapy trying to resolve his dissociative disorder. One bullet will have to do.
This is the End. For no valid reason at all, Tyler’s goons bring Marla up, but it’s still good because she gets to see with her own eyes how crazy the situation has gone.
Time for one more memorable insta-quote,
and we realize that the Narrator only had time to defuse one single bomb.
As the explosive go off and buildings collapse everywhere, cut to the ending credits, and THE END (on the notes of “Where is My Mind“, by The Pixies).
Well, this was a tough one.
I started this piece thinking that after all the narrative structure of “Fight Club” was not so complicated. And it isn’t, really, but I remained fascinated by how deep and layered the story is, seen as an elaborate metaphor of personality disorders. It’s a movie that rewards re-watching, and it’s even more enjoyable after a second or third view, as one is able to catch all the meta-references (the easter eggs, and Tyler’s single-frames apparitions).
The Protagonist meets two “Mentors” in his journey.
Marla, who appears first and seems crazy, remains throughout the whole story more or less the same, and becomes established at the end as the anchor that saves the main character and keeps him bound to sanity. (It’s a bit of a cliché for the female protagonist, still enclosed in the mother / healer archetype, but Helena Bonham Carter still manages to create a character fragile, multi-faceted and always edgy.
Tyler, who initially appears as the sexy, transgressive”savior” who will rescue the Protagonist from his ordinary, dull life, gradually turns into a diabolical Fallen Angel, completely hell-bound and consumed by the measure of his own ambition.
While the Protagonist is unable to create, Tyler is a god-like creator (in the book, they meet on a nudist beach, as Tyler is crafting a hand out of wood, naked. Like a Greek God).
Tyler’s job as a night projectionist is “creative” (even too much). He can cook (even too much). He knows his chemistry. He produces high quality soap out of a disgusting body waste.
He creates the Fight Clubs. He saves lives, by giving a life purpose to all the society’s outcasts. Then, he creates the project Mayhem.
But the paradox is that in the over-crowded and cluttered world he lives in, in order to create, he first needs to destroy what already exists. Including himself.
As the Protagonist destroys himself to get rid of his useless job, Tyler commits a similar self-sacrifice in order to secure the location for his first Fight Club, in the memorable “fight” sequence against the gangsters.
This is his fatal limit. His hubris. In his nihilistic vision to erase society and start over again, he ends up replicating exactly what was wrong with it in the first place, replacing the dogma of consumerism with the dogma of his own fascist, totalitarian vision, an absolutist regime in which no questions are allowed, people are objectified, tools that have function only in their ultimate sacrifice.
He takes the consumeristic pattern he hates in the capitalist society (and learned from his father),
and makes it his own model, replicating not families but entire communities shaped in his own divine image.
It can be seen as a dark parable of the figure of any ancient Prophet. And this, is the sin that determines his fall from grace.
Also, there is a constant tone of machist, toxic masculinity in everything Tyler says or does. The final disdain for any female figure in the story, the urge to suppress feelings as “feminine” reactions, and leave space to the dogma of action instead, the constant references to castration as the ultimate punishment.
While the Protagonist is incapable of having any relationship with Marla, Tyler’s is overly physical, abusive, violent (albeit consensual, at least apparently).
At first I thought “that bit hasn’t aged so well, it’s the machist culture echoing from the 90s”, but then I concluded that no, maybe that was the original message, and the primitive, anarchist force that Tyler represents is like that, brutal, violent, fascist. He fights patriarchy with another, more primitive, patriarchy.
The Narrator is obviously seduced by it, at first, but he can only complete his personal road to salvation by learning how to harness its power, and then surpass it, overcoming his own teachers.
It’s a film that remains entertaining and watchable even 20 years after its release. Some of its themes are still entirely relevant, even after two generations have passed.
The main messages, I would say, are:
1) consumerism leads to empty and pointless lives (duh!), and
2) once the alienation of the working class is complete, there is no turning back, and it’s only a matter of which populist leader, religious fanatic or fascist demagogue appears at the horizon.
The second lesson Tyler Durden can teach is particularly scary, since in 1999 a reality like “Project Mayhem” seemed maybe just a fictional idea, but maybe, as we realize today, we are living in it right now.
Thank you for reading, guys, I hope you enjoyed it!
How to end? Ah, yes. Of course.
Very good analysis of the book and original story: https://www.shmoop.com/fight-club/narrator.html
For easter eggs and more secrets: https://11points.com/2009/09/14/11-hidden-secrets-fight-club/
And of course: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZwsKVL6JfM