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March 01, 2009

Fight Club

Fincher Does Palahniuk
Blood, Sweat, and Emotional Bankruptcy Follow    
By Cole Smithey

Fight-Club Misogynist, anti-capitalist, and class-conscious, novelist Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club” takes a "Trainspotting" brand of glee in dismissing lifestyle mores and materialist limitations of American social existence. It plays like a boys-only video game where male audience members are players encouraged to kick over the machine that ate their quarters at the end of the game. For all of the controversy surrounding the movie for fear that young males will begin setting up fight clubs of their own all around the world, the theory is countered directly in the movie as Ed Norton’s nameless character comes to view his dimwitted, class-conscious Fight Club cohorts as complete morons — who, in Lou Reed's words, follow the first thing that comes along that allows them the right to be. Indeed the Fight Club cult that Norton sets up under the tutelage of his brutal disenfranchised alter ego/evil-twin, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), digresses into a flesh-chewing tombstone that gets dumped on the floor like so much brain matter.

From David Fincher's hyper sci-fi-inflected credit sequence, underscored by searing punk music, to its "Blade Runner"/"Mean Streets" ending, the filmmaker pulls out every stop in his arsenal of cinematic tricks to deliver walloping visual blows. Fincher’s approach is aggressive, and packed to the surface with such a high sperm count that you can almost see the microscopic swimmers bursting to get free. There’s never a gesture, vocal quality, intention, or motivation from any character (even from Helena Bonham Carter's character) that isn’t full-bore masculine. And if that means that a pound of fury is coming along for the ride, so be it.

In the story, if you’re a consumer you’re a pussy. You're pressed to see through the culture of housewife behavior where free time is spent imagining and buying things to complete your identity. A greater social repercussion from "Fight Club" would be a trend where American males just ceased spending money and began hoarding every dime as if they were collecting names on a petition against our snotty soul-crushing corporate government and post-media-feminist existence. But however heavily "Fight Club" relies on extraneous voice-over narration from Norton's character, the grist of the story lies in his need to follow something. Even as it becomes glaringly clear over the course of the movie that he's pulling his own strings, rather than acting on the suggestions of Pitt’s rock-star-perfect persona, it’s the human inclination to be lead that troubles us. Chuck Palahniuk seems to be saying that males have such a strong urge to follow another person’s lead that it’s only through pain that a man can fully realize his own responsibility to himself and to the world around him. It’s a coming-of-age stratagem that fits perfectly within Fincher’s previous films and taps into films like "Taxi Driver," "The Graduate," and "A Clockwork Orange."

Like the insomniac Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver," Ed Norton gravitates to his true nature by exploring society in a heightened state of sleep-deprived accessibility. That Norton’s job as a car company recall analyst demands that he fly into different time zones in cities where he can buy all the same stuff, magnifies his disassociation to other people. Just when he’s finally is able to quell his insomnia by crying at support groups for people with terminal ailments, he becomes stalked by a woman named Marla (Bonham Carter). Marla shows up at every meeting he goes to, and her very presence mocks his ability to find refuge in fringe social enclaves. Jammed, embarrassed, and exasperated, Norton’s character makes a self-enabling breakthrough. By becoming free of all of his worldly possessions, and donning the badges of physical abuse, he attains a sainthood status that he can’t help but abuse by encouraging males around him to join his cult of social terrorists. The performances, direction, and themes are thickly woven in scratchy narrative wool, and David Fincher never lets you forget what the social loom looks like. "Fight Club" is Fincher's cinematic Hail-Mary pass that the audience desperately wants to catch.

Rated R. 139 mins. (A) (Five Stars)


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