It’s an incredibly rare treat when a movie succeeds so well artistically and technically that it continues to influence film and pop culture nearly two decades after its release. David Fincher’s Fight Club is that treat. Some still frames are thoroughly analyzed. The first two rules are endlessly referenced, Robert Paulson lives on in our memory, and it’s virtually impossible to not know its infamous twist – even if you haven’t seen it.
Fight Club’s cult following and modern day masterpiece status began when its complexity and richness separated it from the usual 90s cinema fare, when it was released in 1999. The root of that is Ed Norton’s narrator (not named in the film), whose eyes, mind, and internal dialogue serve as our window into his office-working, sleepless life. Seeking to introduce some thrill into the monotony, he crosses paths with the don’t-give-a-shit-about-anyone Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), and their partnership leads to forming an underground fight club. The narrator is now a bad boy who can bloody up his knuckles between the 9 to 5's. Although some tenants of the narrator’s comfort-seeking nature still remain, Tyler remains his idol and mentor.
Their stomping grounds are the unforgiving downtown and Tyler’s decrepit, moldy abode. The grainy cinematography and the squalor of Tyler’s home give Fight Club a slightly dystopian edge, with only the office space seeming at least remotely normal. But the narrator's black eye and wrinkled shirt quickly negate that. The city’s residents go about their work each day, but Fincher leaves a nagging feeling that some dwellers might have an edge to them – some that might compel them to join the fight club.
Just as Tyler and the narrator’s underground battleground lets the men bloody up their knuckles for a while, Fight Club let late 90s movie goers wear a little grit compared to tamer movies of the time. By being such a distinctive face in the Hollywood crowd, Fight Club had a great head start in becoming a pop cultural icon. Strong performances from Norton and Pitt – and in the latter’s case, an iconic one – further the movie’s legacy.
The way Fincher tells the narrator’s story strengthens its impact. A fast camera swoops and swishes around to capture the heaviest punches and the most minute of details, at one point zooming from the flashing neurons in the narrator’s brain to the iron sights on the gun shoved in his mouth. Even a virtual camera here and there closes in on the wires and inner workings of a bomb and a refrigerator. With shots and scenes that cut back and forth from one another being schizophrenically, yet artfully, frequent, to smoothly glide throughout the film. The effect is performed exceptionally well; what should feel like a series of vignettes is instead a continuous brush stroke, with Fincher as the painter.
Fight Club’s actual story, though, does come off a bit unbelievable to the point of absurdity, well beyond our typical suspension of belief. For some viewers, the story is a difficult “to get in to,” especially as Fincher cuts away from certain scenes as quickly as he enters them. Often the camera too swiftly jumps to the next shot or scene that little time is left to digest and savor the movie’s most picturesque shots, which, on their own, could be framed and hung in a prestigious gallery.
Because of this, Fight Club sometimes may seem concerned more with telling its story stylistically rather than coherently, making multiple viewings a must to catch everything you missed the first time.greater shots, as excellently crafted as a fine painting. But for the cult following, multiple viewings are a rite of passage as natural as fighting on your first night in the club.
Fight Club’s almost schizophrenic cutting and pacing builds up to its single defining moment; the revelation that Ed and Tyler are the same person. The plot twist in itself is so difficult to execute that to base an entire career out of it is tremendously difficult (see: M. Night Shyamalan), and Fight Club’s superior handling of the plot device explains how it has burned into our public consciousness, right next to Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s father and Dr. Malcolm Crowe being dead the whole time.
Fight Club is a bout between technical artistry and hot-blooded, pent-up violence that leaves figurative and literal impressions in the head. While the narrator’s story may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it has since become irrelevant from the sheer power of Fincher’s movie magic. Whether overrated or not, Fight Club’s influence is undeniable, and Fincher’s mastery of the medium commands a great deal of awe and respect.