For the last twenty years, David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club has slowly, steadily gained the reputation as a monolithic touchstone for toxic masculinity, a reckless movie that fills weak-minded young men with bad ideas. “If a man tells you his favorite movie is Fight Club, run away,” is a somewhat common social media sentiment nowadays. But is this sentiment based in any sort of reality, or is it merely a commentary on the gradual aging of Fincher’s groundbreaking 1999 film, a terrific action/drama/comedy hybrid that’s been unjustly cornered by the media?
Consensus seems to be that Fight Club delivered the wrong messages to impressionable young men, creating some anarchistic offshoot of wannabe Tyler Durden’s who bought into his nihilist rhetoric. In so many words, to so many people, the movie created douchebags who didn’t care about anything. Thanks to this unsubstantiated claim, Fight Club has been met with increased derision over the years. Vice seems to be leading the charge in the crusade to slam Fincher’s film, linking it to Men’s Rights Activists and alt-right loons. By fitting the film into this category, thanks to a small minority, it’s easy to dismiss all the brilliance at work.
No, Fight Club is not my favorite movie. It’s not even one of my five favorite in David Fincher’s filmography. But Fincher’s list of quality films runs deep, and his pitch perfect adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s darkly comic salute to masculine fragility – not toxicity – deserves a better shake. Attributing the fractured fanbase to the film itself is akin to the sort of blame Marilyn Manson was receiving for the Columbine shooting a few months before Fight Club‘s release. It’s a lazy way to shrug off the real issue with young men in this country, and an even lazier way to categorize any fan of the film. I was 18 when I saw the film in the theater. At the time I had the poster, and I adored the movie and thought Brad Pitt was giving the coolest of cool performances. I never once thought about wreaking havoc on The Evil Corporate-Run Society. I simply grew up, and the picture evolved, and it became something funnier and more clearly satirical to me as time passed.
Fight Club isn’t to blame for some minuscule section of supporters, and it should be allowed to stand on its own as the satire Fincher and Palahniuk intended. Just because a few (again, not even a few, I’ve never met some Fight Club sycophant) soft skulls allegedly took the wrong message from the exploits of Durden doesn’t mean the film didn’t do what it set out to do. Tyler Durden’s decries of anarchy and destroying the system are heightened to absurd levels, a manifesto sprung from the troubled mind of an aimless young man, and his ultimate plan to blow up the credit company buildings is outlandish because it’s supposed to be. Taking a step back from the discourse that’s poisoned the well, Fincher’s intent is clear. Pitt’s Tyler Durden is a broad comic figure manifested from the bored brain of Edward Norton’s “Jack.” This is a rotten fantasy of penned up rage and stymied libido, the ultimate imaginary friend run amok, able to influence the “real world” with brutal fighting, anarchy, and phantasmagoric sex. Fight Club whisks along at a breakneck pace, and thumps with energy and style in every frame, and not everyone who admires it has psychological “issues” ripe for manipulation.
No matter how you see the story and its intent, there’s no denying that Fight Club was truly, without hyperbole, a groundbreaking cinematic experience in 1999. It felt like the potential for film was blossoming at the end of the millennium, right in front of our eyes, and Fincher’s balance of technical wizardry and visceral hyper reality and texture was hypnotic. Though I wasn’t around in 1969, three decades after Easy Rider welcomed in the New Hollywood of the ’70s, the industry looked like it was hitting a new level of enlightenment. Fincher’s film felt, at the time, like the tip of the spear. Perhaps twenty years of time has steered the culture towards favoring other ’99 films, but that doesn’t change how impactful Fight Club was when it unspooled in the theater.
For every MRA idiot sousing Durden’s prose on 4chan, there are a dozen film fans who count Fight Club as an important stepping stone in their own development into the understanding of, and the appreciation for, the craft of filmmaking – yours truly included. But, taking a step back, has Durden’s rhetoric ever been tied to any mass casualty events in this country? Did this film ever cause an outbreak of bombings or assaults or even underground fight clubs? No. Because Tyler Durden speaks to us when we’re 18, but even then he just seems cool and funny. Nobody ever truly bought the ridiculous message of Palahniuk’s clear satire, except perhaps the media who decry it as something #toxic and #problematic.
Like so many touchstones in the history of cinema, Fight Club showed audiences what films were capable of on both a narrative and visual levels. It pushed the limits of storytelling in a new direction and, like so many “big moment” pictures, it was often imitated, never duplicated. It deserves a better legacy.