When I first watched Fight Club my film knowledge was abysmal. But, I was, in that moment, convinced that I had just seen a contemporary masterpiece. It’s worth noting: I had no idea what that meant, nor will I attempt to act like I did. Fight Club was released fifteen years ago today. And I was nine. Yeah, nine. Most of what I think about the film now I have gathered from later viewings. I probably watched it 20 times in my teens because I thought it was so, so cool. That word stuck with me for years when thinking about the film. Cool.
I compared everything I watched to Fight Club. As I grew up, in a general and film sense, I started to compare Fight Club to everything I watched. It is this shift that helped me realize how fleeting cool-ness is when it stands alone and that Fight Club is not the masterpiece I thought it was.
Maybe it’s the way that the the dull, insincere, smug attitude exuded by Ed Norton has started to grate on me. Or how Brad Pitt, an actor I consistently love, seems to be acting more in this movie than any of his other films. Or maybe it was David Fincher’s behavior during the acceptance speech at the Guys’ Choice Awards. But it started to feel like maybe this film holds itself in higher regard than even its army of obsessed fans (of which I was once one).
Fight Club unfolds in true Fincher fashion, positioning the viewer inside of the head of Ed Norton’s unnamed character and narrator. I will say, I still think this is the best performance Norton has given in his career, but maybe it’s easier to successfully fill a role that is void of depth. Norton is perfectly suited to stand in as the poster child for the film’s underlying themes: The upper-middle class straight white male with a chip on his shoulder and lip pouting in anticipation of an apology. Norton’s success is in portraying his character as the victim of society, someone so fractured by some abstract, undefined injustice that his personality breaks in two. Enter Tyler Durden, with his disgustingly beautiful face and his mind embracing the unstable. Enter Tyler Durden, with his catchy nihilistic one-liners and his unhinged laugh. Tyler Durden and his unnamed double, chewing on monologues about whatever it is that the world didn’t give them but they feel they deserve while Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) is treated as a possession and never given the chance to express how that feels. Fincher has a history of utilizing female characters in a questionable light (just chase Amy Dunne around the film forums) and fans have done the acrobatics to defend these allegations, but I can’t buy into any logic that attempts to paint Marla as anything other than a victim of narrative misogyny. Who has time for Marla’s feelings when Brad Pitt and Edward Norton have so much to say about their own suffering?
Fight Club is not a bad movie, I guess. It’s certainly not worthless. I enjoyed it throughout my teens and everyone I came across seemed to love it to varying degrees. There are hints of all the things that make Fincher a marvel—the polished darkness, the keen touch of suspense. It is a film that transcended into the mainstream with a masculine front and did not forget to kinder to its more learned film audience. But its insistence on shouting those particular themes (be they satirical or not (I don’t think they are)), it’s so hard to stomach. It’s hard to imagine that Fight Club could be even a cult success in today’s better and more diverse, sensitive culture. But hey, during a decade in which Everybody Loves Raymond earned nine seasons and Limp Bizkit had multiple hit albums, Fight Club was the movie of the moment. A moment when, apparently, middle class white men had it very, very hard.