Battered And Bruised
In-your-face violence masks a surprisingly subversive movie about men and their fists.
Thursday, October 14, 1999
In trailers for the film Fight Club, Brad Pitt keeps begging, "Hit me." Viewers who wish they could take him up on the offer will be surprised to discover that Fight Club is one of the most subversive films of the ''90s. Sold as an all-you-can-eat buffet of knuckle sandwiches, Fight Club delivers instead the consequences of brutal, bare-knuckle fights: hideous bruises, knocked-out teeth, and lots of blood.
Of course, showing violence in a movie is as easy as deploring it afterward. But this savage fantasy exposes the worst implications of the dreaded "search for the father" plot. When the narrator, Jack (Edward Norton) finds a loving, surrogate father ready to test him, to lead him into manhood, this self-same father, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), turns out to be a grade-A psycho.
Jack is an insomnia-ridden corporate cipher. While traveling for his malign, dull insurance job, high on sleeplessness, Jack meets Durden, who is everything he isn''t: confident, sloppy and impulsive. Together, the two men begin an underground organization of guys who meet anonymously in the back rooms of bars at night, like gay men meeting for clandestine sex. Here, however, the men engage in bare-knuckle fistfights with strangers.
Jack rhapsodizes about the pleasures of these bouts, telling us how he only lives for them. But the casual violence of the Fight Clubs which spread and from city to city isn''t enough for Tyler, who sees all the fighting as essentially boot camp for a bigger scheme: an anarchic Operation Mayhem.
Pitt''s Durden is a loon''s messiah, and this often-pretentious actor is most enjoyable satirizing his studliness. And the casting of Norton, always convincing as a gray-faced weirdo, takes some of the preposterousness out of Chuck Palahniuk''s novel. In the press notes for the film, Palahnuik endorses his characters'' fights: "We are a nation of physical animals who have forgotten how much we enjoy being that [sic]. We are cushioned by this kind of make-believe, unreal world, and we have no idea what we can survive because we are never challenged or tested."
Truly spoken like a man who sits in a room all day and conjures up make-believe, unreal worlds for a living.
The seed of a good movie was there in the novel, but so was the mold for a bad movie-a typical Sylvester Stallone trial by ordeal. David Fincher >(Seven, The Game) turns out to be the perfect director for this satire. The film''s set in one of Fincher''s usual composite cities-part L.A., part N.Y. and a whole lot of Bucharest. This city is a swamp, just like the rotten, half-flooded industrial slum where Durden and Jack come to live.
This squalor, the sordidness of Durden in his greasy thrift-shop duds; the fierce and crazy counterpoint of Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), the transient girl Durden picks up, sleeps with and drops...all of these are contradictions to Durden''s reactionary ideas about the purity of pain.
This nervy, scary film seems like a companion piece to Susan Faludi''s superb new book Stiffed. Both works talk about the misdirected anger of disenfranchised men and their terror at being unmanned. And both works come to the same conclusion. Instead of understanding the economic forces that have imprisoned both sexes, men retreat into movie-fed fantasies of the lone hero who beats the world into shape. In Fight Club, as in real life, these men only end up clobbering themselves.