Twenty years ago today, David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’ landed on an unsuspecting America like a Sugar Ray uppercut. Since then, its status as a modern masterpiece is all but unchallenged. But, asks film writer David Hughes, is its assault on society’s smug complacency still as potent as it once was?
‘The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club’
Well, we don’t care much for rules. With David Fincher’s maverick masterpiece turning 20 today, we’re here to talk about ‘Fight Club’. It was released at the tail end of 1999, arguably the best year for film – at least, since 1939 – with ‘The Matrix’, ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘The Blair Witch Project’, ‘American Beauty’, ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Magnolia’ among the game-changers.
‘This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time’
‘Fight Club’ was one of the last films of the twentieth century, but felt like the first film of the twenty-first – a radical, subversive, controversial life lesson in which Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and his pal (Ed Norton) start a bare-knuckle boxing club in a bid to reclaim their manhood from a milquetoast life of Ikea furniture, lattes and self-improvement. Their idea catches on, and before you can say ‘I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise’, fight clubs start springing up all over America, spearheading a kind of revolution designed to shake the masses from their designer-label delirium (or ‘buying shit you don’t need to impress people you don’t like’, as Jim Uhls’s screenplay succinctly puts it). Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s incendiary novel, the film was an A-bomb disguised as a wake-up call – and it almost blew up in director David Fincher’s face.
‘I want you to hit me as hard as you can’
Film critic Alexander Walker, echoing his response to Stanley Kubrick's ‘A Clockwork Orange’ nearly three decades earlier, called it ‘an inadmissible assault on personal decency,’ while the New York Times’s Janet Maslin spoke for many US critics when she suggested that, with the Columbine massacre having occurred a few months earlier, it might inspire copycat violence – a suggestion that will sound familiar to anyone following Todd Phillips’s ‘Joker’. (As it happened, Maslin wasn’t wrong: in July 2009, a 17-year-old New Yorker who had formed his own fight club was arrested for trying to blow up a Starbucks in a move directly inspired by the film.) Perhaps most surprising to Fincher, however, was the accusation that the film’s politics were at best nihilistic, at worst fascistic. ‘How can a movie that is a proponent of no solution whatsoever be labelled as fascist?’ was Fincher’s rebuttal. ‘It’s fundamentally opposed to the idea of fascism.’
‘We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re very, very pissed off.’
Two decades on, ‘Fight Club’ still packs a punch, even if its nihilistic worldview has arguably been outpaced by world events, from 9/11 to Donald Trump to climate catastrophe. See it again after 20 years and you can still admire its performances, its aesthetic and stylistic artistry, its subversive wit, even its cod philosophy (or actual philosophy, if Tyler Durden’s we-are-all-part-of-the-same-compost-heap worldview resonates with you). But if you’re watching ‘Fight Club’ for the first time, I’d put money on it being the most bruising viewing experience you’ve seen in many moons. It still feels as fresh as when it first hit cinemas like a bare-knuckle fist to the face.
‘Fight Club’ is available on Blu-ray, DVD, digital and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Read our review here.