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Blow to the Head

A review of "Fight Club"

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*Fight Club (R)
Regency/Fox 2000

I don't know how much movies should entertain," director David Fincher once said. "To me, I'm always interested in movies that scar. The thing I love about Jaws is the fact that I've never gone swimming in the ocean again."

In his unflinching explorations of violence, first in Seven, and now with Fight Club, Fincher maintains a cinematic vision like no other contemporary filmmaker. Rarely does a film seamlessly mesh the vision of the director, the producers, the actors and the production team; but in Fincher's films -- at least these two, which dwell on his favorite subject matter -- the vision swallows and envelopes every frame of the film, and the result is a singularly dark, perversely thrilling cinematic experience. You may not enjoy his movies, but you can't deny their power to draw you in.

With Fight Club, Fincher explores the currently hot psychological territory of the disaffected American male at the end of the 20th century. The underlying theme echoes concerns voiced in feminist scholar Susan Faludi's new book, Stiffed, and in the recent film American Beauty. According to Faludi, men's troubles need to be viewed "not as a battle with women ... but as part of a larger struggle with a culture that doesn't give men or women enough useful roles, but instead values them more for being consumers and making money."

Fincher takes that theory and pounds it like a 10-pound hammer to a block of steel -- his male characters are emasculated by the lure and demands of the consumer culture, and to regain their virility they need to do something explosive and violent -- in this case, fighting.

Edward Norton immerses himself in the role of the narrator and main character of Fight Club, turning in a performance that will likely draw comparisons to Robert DeNiro or Dustin Hoffman, placing him firmly at the top of his generation of Hollywood actors. A dour and driven recall investigator for an automobile manufacturer, he is so disillusioned by his job and his lifestyle that he becomes addicted to self-help groups, particularly the Remaining Men Together group for men who are victims of testicular cancer. "Losing all hope was freedom," says the narrator. "Every day I died; every night I was born again."

When he has reached his lowest point, Norton meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a new best friend and charismatic alter ego. Tyler defies all the rules, denies all responsibility and summarily rejects job, bank account, fashion and self-importance. And Tyler initiates his new friend into the subculture of violence called Fight Club, a place where men release pent-up anger with flying fists and bone-crunching body blows.

Fight Club is a dark fantasy spiced with sadistic humor, an apocalyptic allegory aimed squarely at the prevailing culture of "shop till you drop", and Fincher extends it far beyond a tidy conclusion into the realm of epic. Norton's anti-hero sinks deeper and deeper into mayhem while the audience strains for relief that is not forthcoming.

Too long by about a half-hour, the film would not have missed about half the fight scenes, filmed in a dark, wet basement. And the inclusion of Helena Bonham Carter as Marla Singer, a nihilistic junkie who becomes the receptacle of Tyler's sex drive, and eventually a love interest, feels forced and incomplete.

But, overall, Fight Club succeeds. The script, especially in the first hour, is funny and tight. Fincher is the perfect director for Brad Pitt, tapping into the smug arrogance that he does best. The editing, design and cinematography are compelling throughout, and Norton is stellar.

This recommendation contains a strong warning, however. Fight Club is intensely, graphically violent in parts. If you react strongly to the sight of splattered brains and crushed noses, you might want to pass. And youthful viewers should be advised that Fight Club is an allegory, not an advertisement for random violence or dangerous behavior.

Fincher takes a more intense approach to violence than those runaway filmmakers who dish out endless clones of cops-and-robbers action films. You could say he prefers mind fucking to brain washing.

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