[With Mindhunter set to premiere next week, we’re reposting our deep dives into the work of director David Fincher. These articles contain spoilers.]
The first rule of Fight Club is to talk about Fight Club. The movie underperformed at the box office, and found life on DVD where it became a cult classic. Within the context of the film, Tyler Durden’s famous rule is a brilliant and ironic bit of marketing for a group of men trying to reject advertising and find human connection. “Jack” (for clarity purposes, I’ll use this name to refer to the Narrator) may be our storyteller, but Tyler is our lens, and through that lens, the story of Fight Club has been greatly misinterpreted by any audience member who saw the movie and thought, “I should start a fight club!” The movie isn’t preaching. It isn’t an angry screed by David Fincher or worshiping at the Church of Tyler Durden. It’s not even wholly about male bonding. Fight Club is a romantic comedy as only David Fincher could tell it.
More than any of Fincher’s other movies Fight Club offers itself to the widest amount of interpretations because it covers so much. It’s a bit of a paradox that a director who’s known for his precision should cast his thematic net so wide, but screenwriter Jim Uhls (with an uncredited assist from Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker) did a masterful job of translating the breadth of Chuck Palahunik‘s rich novel into a workable script.
Fight Club can be taken as a rallying cry against consumer culture. It can be a commentary on a lost generation. It can be about a primal reduction to our base instincts. It can be a celebration of anarchy. It can be all of these things and more because the movie is specific enough to provide this information but not so broad as to invite any interpretation. But on my latest viewing, I’ve become convinced that more than anything, Fight Club is one of the most twisted, funny, deceptive, and perverse love stories ever seen on screen.
Jack (Edward Norton) may be our protagonist, Tyler (Brad Pitt) may be our seducer, but the key to the entire movie is Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). Before we even reach Marla, Tyler is briefly cut into single frames of the movie. He’s already in Jack’s mind, but only in a flash. Before they truly meet, Jack thinks he’s found peace in the artificial connection of support groups. These groups don’t represent a real relationship for Jack; they fill an empty hole that’s keeping him awake at night. He has absolutely no sympathy for anyone else, and if that’s not abundantly clear by the fact that he’s crashing support groups, it’s hammered home by his comment about Chloe, a terminally ill cancer patient: “Chloe looked the way Meryl Streep’s skeleton would look if you made it smile and walk around the party being extra nice to everybody.” Then Marla enters the picture and, “She. Ruined. Everything.”
She ruins everything because he has a crush on her. “Her lie reflected my lie,” Jack says. She’s a kindred spirit for someone who is still too self-involved to make any kind of real connection. He fills his apartment with stuff, but his refrigerator is only filled with condiments. Jack can’t create a meal, and he certainly doesn’t have anyone with whom to share it. Marla reflects his emptiness back at him, and like any grade-school boy who likes a girl, he kicks her in the shins and pushes her away. He can’t have intimacy with a real person.
Enter Tyler Durden. Marla is leading Jack down the path to needing someone real, but when his artificial connections at support groups begin to weaken, a wholly fake connection is even better. When Tyler and Jack meet, Jack has “woken up as a different person,” and it’s a person who starts calling Jack on his bullshit from the get go. Tyler knows Jack’s mind, which makes him alluring from the start. Jack may not be able to explain to us why he decided to call Tyler, but it was clearly a subconscious decision to call forth a subconscious friend: Someone to get Jack to reevaluate his life rather than sell him something like a yin-yang table or a shoulder to cry on.
Their first fight is a consummation of their relationship. It’s the mix of self-love and self-hatred that Jack feels bottled up inside. But before we even get the first punch, Jack reveals a few important tidbits about the movie, and lets Fincher briefly pop his head in as he alerts us to the anarchic spirit that’s about to explode (not that it wasn’t already threatening to overflow already with the impressive VFX work, dark humor, and sliding penguins). We’re told that Tyler works as a projectionist, (i.e he works in film), and he likes inserting shots of pornography into movies. Aside from the fact that “No one knows they saw it, but they did,” also refers to Tyler’s earlier appearances, it’s an announcement of how Fincher is going to keep providing clues that Jack and Tyler are the same person.
Yes, there are overt moments where Jack is on the phone with the detective, and when asked about a possible suspect, Tyler whispers, “Tell him the liberator who destroyed my property has realigned my perceptions,” and when asked about enemies, and Jack responds, “Enemies?”, Tyler quickly proclaims “who reject the basic assumption of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions!” Again and again, we’re given these clues. When Jack beats himself up in front of his boss, he tells us he’s reminded of his first fight with Tyler. These moments add up, especially when Tyler and Jack talk about their lives.