A lonely, isolated thirty-something young professional seeks an escape from his mundane existence with the help of a devious soap salesman. They find their release from the prison of reality through underground fight clubs, where men can be what the world now denies them. Their boxing matches and harmless pranks soon lead to an out-of-control spiral towards oblivion.
When it opened in America to somewhat disappointing business, there was a widespread misjudgement that Fight Club was an action movie about underground bare-knuckle boxing contests — perhaps an inflated, star-powered version of Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles like Bloodsport or Kickboxer.
Actually, it's a horror movie which literally begins in the fear-centre of its narrator's brain (and arguably stays there) and spins a postmodern rethink of Psycho with enough dizzying side-trips to pull off yet again the long-blown surprise ending that two apparent antagonists are, in fact, the same person. Adapted faithfully from Chuck Palahniuk's novel, the film follows a buttoned-down insurance minion (Norton) who projects himself as flamboyant, anti-social, charismatic genius revolutionary Tyler Durden (Pitt), in order to shake up his own life and, in the end, society as a whole. The splitting of one persona into "Jack" (if that's his real name and not a convenience plucked from a Reader's Digest-ish magazine he finds) and "Tyler Durden" evokes Norman Bates and his mother, but also echoes that other once-surprising revelation, that respectable Dr. Jekyll and murderous Mr. Hyde are the same person.
By externalising an alter ego as an apparent actual person played by another actor, Fight Club might seem to be cheating — but is merely using the device Robert Bloch did in his Psycho novel, where Norman and Mother have long talks. There are similar instances in not a few horror films, like the Lucy Comes To Stay segment of 1972's Asylym (which Bloch wrote) where repressed Charlotte Rampling and homicidal Britt Ekland are one person, or The Other (1972), from Tom Tryon's novel, where one of a set of twins turns out to be either a ghost or an alternate personality.
This gambit, which many of Fight Club's original audiences found infuriating, is actually so well established in the genre that Brian De Palma could play a joke at its expense in Raising Cain, where John Lithgow's imaginary father turns out to be real after all. Fight Club is the third and most complex in director David Fincher's loose trilogy of nightmare movies, following Seven (or Se7en, to be strictly accurate) and The Game. It begins in the fear-centre of a brain and spins a postmodern rethink on Psycho Fincher's theme — trace elements can be found even in his compromised debut, Alien3 — is the crisis of middle-class masculinity in a world torn between oppressive conformity and a libido-like anarchic underbelly that is at once dangerous, alluring and life-changing.
Seven is also about an unsatisfied minion (there, Pitt) who meets his monster alter ego (Kevin Spacey) and is manipulated into murdering him, while The Game also strips away every trapping of success and wealth from Michael Douglas as he realises his whole life is a conspiracy whose purpose he fears and desires at the same time. The trajectory of Fincher's career is away from strict genre and into an unclassifiable twilight zone, but he takes with him an evolving, unique filmmaking style that suggests a final evolutionary form of the horror movie as a species of black satire shot through with impolite bursts of violence as terrifying as they are liberating.
A chronic insomniac addicted to kibitzing at self-help groups, Jack encounters goth chick Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), who has a similar kink, and is forced into a wilder sphere when he hooks up with Durden, whom he seems to meet on an aeroplane. When his Ikea-outfitted condo is blown up in a mysterious explosion, Jack moves into a dilapidated old house (reminiscent of the Bates Motel) with him. The pair indulge in recreational fistfights in a bar parking lot, which expands into an underground club for alienated men to take out their frustrations on each other as a homosocial and homoerotic act.
Though Durden and Maria have a noisy affair, fantasised and actualised by Jack, women almost don't impinge on the world of Tyler Durden. It's a plot feint about the overt attraction between the male leads, beautiful Brad and wiry Edward, that winds in on itself with the revelation that Jack has been fighting himself. Durden turns Fight Club into Project Mayhem, a campaign of revolutionary pranks which extends so far into the infrastructure of society that when Jack catches on to his double life and confesses, most of the cops turn out to be in on it.
There is a great deal of sick humour at the expense of masculinist ideals and white-collar society — Durden's bizarre pranks (splicing porno frames into family films, making soap of liposucked human fat) to the dizzying third act as Jack is bewildered by the escalation of the project his disciples know he has initiated, with his statements taken up as chanted slogans and seemingly every bruised man he meets in on the scheme. It culminates in real horror as Jack purges himself of Durden by shooting himself in the mouth, blowing out Durden's brains but not his own, and embracing the puzzled Maria as the skyline of financial buildings explodes.
After Fight Club, it's impossible to go back: to ordinary life, to ordinary fears, to ordinary films.