A Fistful Of Darkness

Jack (Edward Norton), the narrator of David Fincher's seriously wacked-out "Fight Club," is an insomniac wage slave so alienated from his life he takes to frequenting support groups. He starts with Men's Testicular Cancer. Sobbing in the arms of men whose afflictions he pretends to share, he finds a temporary freedom by abandoning all hope. Soon he's become a recovery-group addict. Every night he finds a different group--sickle-cell therapy, bowel cancer--until his quest is spoiled by the presence of another "tourist" like himself, the ashen-faced, chain-smoking Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). How can he cry with another faker in the room?

So begins, promisingly and perversely, this darkest of dark satires from the director of the pitch-black "Seven" and the ultraparanoid "The Game." But Fincher's alternately amazing and annoying movie, written by Jim Uhls from a Chuck Palahniuk novel, has bolder provocations to come. On a business flight Jack meets the nihilist guru Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), an anarchic Pied Piper in pimp's clothes who promises to lead this sorry Everyman to a higher Truth. Tyler sees through the facade of consumerist culture, with its meaningless devotion to materialism and self-improvement. He is given to grand pronouncements: "It's only after we've lost everything that we are free to do anything." "The things you own end up owning you." This charismatic prankster is the sort of fellow who, working briefly as a projectionist (in a bit stolen from Terry Southern's "The Magic Christian"), inserts subliminal frames of a penis into Hollywood family fare.

Taking Jack in when his apartment is destroyed by an explosion, Tyler initiates him into the ultrasecret male society called Fight Club. In parking lots and dark basement rooms, the members gleefully bash each other to a bloody pulp, and we are meant to understand that some deep atavistic warrior instinct is being satisfied. In the ecstatic blood rites of Fight Club, emasculated, feminized modern man can find the meaning corporate society denies him. (Susan Faludi should demand a percentage: did someone slip the screenwriter an advance copy of "Stiffed"?)

Already, however, strange subtexts are piling up. All these guys masochistically lining up to be beaten by Brad Pitt... The homoeroticism is off the charts, but "Fight Club" can't bring itself to account for it. And when the movie, after satirizing the gym-enhanced bodies of men in Gucci subway ads ("Self-improvement is masturbation," Tyler pronounces), cuts to the impeccably lean and cut body of its leading man, it is in the grips of a style-content contradiction that this slick denunciation of surface values battles throughout.

We are clued in by the dankly hallucinatory style that "Fight Club" transpires somewhere to the left of the real world, like an emanation of the untrammeled male id. Reality becomes even more tenuous when Fight Club itself expands and transforms itself into Project Mayhem. Armies of black-clad urban terrorists take to the streets smashing car windows, trashing public art, building bombs. In the funniest outrage, members are urged to go out and pick a fight with the first person they come across: it plays like a satanic version of "Candid Camera."

What is the audience to make of Tyler Durden? Played with great bravado by Pitt, he's a kind of Nietzschean Robin Hood, using violence to restore dignity to the benighted American male. But when the real deaths start to pile up, even Jack begins to have qualms about where his bloodthirsty master is leading him.

By this point in Fincher's long fever dream of a movie, the audience's qualms may be mounting as well. Just as he let "The Game" fritter away its power in a preposterous conclusion, Fincher inflates "Fight Club" with apocalyptic mayhem that's positively Wagnerian in its pretension. There is a major plot twist a la "The Sixth Sense" that I won't divulge. It's clearly meant to spin the movie into a provocative new orbit of meaning, but it reads more as if the story has boxed itself into a corner and can't find a way out. The movie doesn't so much end as self-destruct. In the final frames, Fincher inserts the same porno images Tyler had subversively projected, and it's hard not to think of this as a gesture of contempt for the audience. No wonder we leave feeling more surly and exhausted than satisfied. Yet this is not a movie that can be easily dismissed--or forgotten. An outrageous mixture of brilliant technique, puerile philosophizing, trenchant satire and sensory overload, "Fight Club" is the most incendiary movie to come out of Hollywood in a long time. It's a mess, but one worth fighting about.