Ethics & Public Policy Center

Fight Club

Published in EPPC Online on December 1, 1999



I didn’t bother going to see Fight Club when it came out in October because, having seen Seven and The Game, the earlier films by its director, David Fincher, I thought I knew what to expect: namely, bargain basement nihilism and pseudo-profundities got up into an “edgy” package with “edgy” music and featuring big stars who specialize in “attitude.” Also, a gruesome fascination with blood and other interior fluids forced out of their fragile containers, and with physical ruin, whether of people, cars or buildings. But so many people wrote me asking what I thought of the movie—most of them, I gathered, expecting me to hate it—that I belatedly decided I’d better go and have a look.

And what did I find? Lo, I did hate it. But I also thought that I had been right not to bother going in the first place, since the movie is neither interestingly bad in itself, like Bringing Out the Dead or The Story of Us, nor a particularly notable cultural landmark of badness, like Dogma or American Beauty. In fact, it was pretty much exactly what I expected, though I did find it mildly interesting to note that, like American Beauty, the film is (among other things) a caricature of old-fashioned ideas of masculinity by someone who doesn’t understand them from the inside but whose dreams they obviously haunt. Whether or not this ambivalence towards images of butch brutes who only come alive when they are grappling with and punching each other is related to the film’s homoerotic subtext I forbear to guess.

The surprise of the movie’s ending shows us that, indeed, the two little dears played by Edward Norton and Brad Pitt are (you could say) closer than Roebuck is to Sears. But the whole premiss of this movie is that we are all (at least all of us who are men) inhabited by the male beast who lives to fight, to inflict violence and mayhem on his fellow creatures merely for the thrill of it, and that civilized life is a struggle between that inward and feral male and the countervailing but increasingly effete-looking forces of civilization. Fincher has some sympathy with the beast because it promises a buzz. “After fighting, everything else in your life has got the volume turned down,” says Norton’s narrator. “You were never alive like you were there.” It is also politically sympathetic, insofar as it puts its highest value on freedom and holds corporations and Ikea furniture and therapeutic assumptions in contempt.

But it must make the world very hard for Fincher to understand when he reflects that corporations and Ikea furniture, if not necessarily therapeutic assumptions, are also produced by men, men who want to build rather than tear down. Now where did they come from do you suppose? Brad Pitt’s character’s thoughts on marriage—“We’re a generation of men raised by women; I’m wondering if another woman is what we really need”—is the kind of superficial profundity in which Fincher specializes. But anyone who spends more time than he does in the world as it is, is likely to hear it as mere bravado. In this it is like the movie as a whole. The disturbing and unlovely masculine tendency it presents us with is not really violence at all, but rather this kind of blustery arrogance—which, by the way, resembles violence in having been disciplined, historically, by a sense of honor. Lacking same, this movie is a waste of time.

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