"Fight Club" is meant to be a trick film; that is, it leads us deliberately down a kind of garden path, but then reveals itself to be something else entirely. It's being compared to "The Sixth Sense" that way, but the comparison falters here because where the latter is sharp and focused, "Fight Club" is simply manipulative.
And yet it has its moments. The opening shot in "Fight Club," running under the credits, is an endless pullback of what an electron microscope sees: strands of grey molecules, twisted and inconclusive, intertwined like DNA, rushing through holes in weblike constructions, somehow all looking like what we think of when we think of phlegm in our lungs. It is a preview of what's to come.
The film begins as the story of a young man (Edward Norton, whose character has no name -- or rather takes on names at will) who's a walking billboard for anomie. He works for a major automobile manufacturer, and his job is to examine wrecked cars whose accidents were caused by manufacturing defects, and determine whether recalling those lines to fix the defects would be economically profitable, as compared with the costs of paying the survivors or families of the deceased. We are meant to see this as a microcosm of the American system, a system and a society in which life is measured only in terms of its economic value.
Norton narrates the film, and lets us in on his own disgust with his life. He is emotionally dead, and tries to reconnect with his feelings by showing up at a variety of therapy and support groups -- melanoma on Tuesdays, tuberculosis on Thursdays. His steady gig, though, is the group of survivors of testicular cancer -- men who've been emasculated in the course of their treatment.
One day, on a plane, his seatmate is Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who seems contemptuous of Norton for not taking his life in his own hands. When Norton finds that his condo apartment has been blown up, Durden invites him into his own house, which turns out to be something out of "The Haunting." Filthy, dark, mysterious, yet somehow just what Norton needs. At the same time, he meets Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), another support groupie but a nihilistic, angry bitch as well.
Norton finds himself in psychological thrall to Pitt, agreeing to every suggestion. Pitt is his id, or at least the life force Norton can't seem to feel. One night Pitt tells him "Hit me. Go ahead and hit me." Which Norton does, and quickly they have formed 'Fight Club,' open to men who evidently share that anomie, that lack of connection to anything meaningful. These men gather to fight each other to bloody conclusions, and seem to take strength from it. As does Norton.
But Norton is the odd man out with Marla. He is the nice guy, Pitt is the brute whom Marla responds to. Norton overhears their endless orgiastic sex, but can't bring himself to take part. He is still the observer, not the participant. And yet all this is not a dull tirade for the audience. There are witty moments scattered here that help distance us and the film from total immersion in the brutality. "Who would you fight?" asks Pitt. "Any historical figure." "I'd fight Gandhi," says Norton.
But now Fight Club takes on a life and power of its own. More and more men come to join, under the brutal direction of Pitt. There are dress codes (all black), and shaved heads, and mindless military procedures. It is an allegory of the growth of a nihilistic fascism. Fight Clubs spring up all over the United States. Wherever Norton turns, he sees evidence of them, though they are kept secret from the 'normal' world.
The film drives to an apocalyptic conclusion that's been compared for shock value with "The Sixth Sense." I don't agree. Somewhere in the film's two and a quarter hours whatever moral lessons might have been shared with us -- lessons that would truly have had shock value -- are lost in an unfocused screenplay that wants to have its cake and eat it too. Norton's miasmic depression isn't caused by his attachment to material possessions but by factors that the screenplay won't share with us. What we don't know hurts any chance we have of identifying with his character. Pitt as Durden is more successful simply because he is written in one dimension, and when we learn his secret at the end, it turns out to be built on nothing more than his one-dimensionality.
There is some excellent staging of scenes by director Fincher, and extraordinary lighting of nighttime shots by director of photography Jeff Cronenweth. The sequence editing by James Haygood adds the kinetic power that the film requires. On the other hand, I find Pitt's voice to be monotonous and uninflected when it should be emotional and charismatic; and Norton, who is an actor of much greater range, is held back by his role as the nebbish, so that the supposedly big payoff is just too small to be taken seriously.