Fight Club is an extremely complex film, in a way that we haven't seen in a long time (or maybe ever). In films that are actually about something and that have a lead character with whom we are supposed to identify, there are several key changes in attitude that you can chart from the beginning to the end. The character learns the lessons put before him and becomes a different person. Like the various epiphanies that Travis has in Taxi Driver or Max in Rushmore. Sometimes, like in American Psycho the lesson is that there are no lessons. There is some element of this in Taxi Driver as well. The movie follows these characters and gives us external clues to their internal changes (Max and Travis both make dramatic wardrobe changes at key moments in their developments) but the movie usually remains consistent in its storytelling style. (In films that are not about anything at all, like Bond films, the character learns nothing at all and doesn't ever change)
In Fight Club the narrator goes through countless major changes and the film is divided up into so many little emotional turns and cues that it boggles the mind. Everything in the film (everything!) is a clue to the character's inner struggle. The entire movie happens in this constantly evolving state. It seems to be about dozens of different things at any given moment only to flip it's entire meaning the next. If you hang in until the end the payoff is extraordinary. But if you get stuck along the way or lose interest it all seems to be pointless. People who say it is a critique / glorification of violence, of capitalism, of men, of women, of whatever are getting little bits that are dropped along the way, like bread crumbs in a dense forest. The ads made it out to be an anti-consumerist film (a little irony all its own) but that is only a small part of the movie and not, ultimately, the crucial one anyway.
The way that the film changes point of view is excellent. Director David Fincher indicates that he is going to do this early on when we first see Remaining Men Together. The meeting is portrayed for maximum comic effect and the narrator smirks at the prospect of crying on Bob's bitch tits. That's because we haven't gone through enough yet to appreciate the weight of this situation and are seeing it as if we had walked in cold. Then he takes us back further and we see the desperation in his life. When he comes back around to Remaining Men Together there is nothing funny about it; From the first man's incredibly sad story to the narrator's complete and total abandon on Bob's chest, the scene takes on a totally different tone. Unlike something like The Sixth Sense which invites you to look at all the ways the trick ending "works" on repeat viewing, Fight Club changes tone with the lead character and as he sees things differently the entire film becomes different. What you see in the beginning may not necessarily still be true by the end.
People will be writing dissertations on Fight Club for years to come. That is not to say that academia is all-important, but rather that the film may grow to be a touchstone of our culture, like Taxi Driver, Warhol, and Elvis. Something that you have to have an opinion on, that you can disagree with and still find endlessly interesting. To misinterpret it as a film saying that fighting in basements is good or that we should do public destruction is tragic, but inevitable. The kind of mindset in the movie is real. Leaders are tormented, confused people and that dynamic draws attention. Is Project Mayhem unrealistic? Hardly.
Is Fight Club misogynistic?
So ultimately this is the opposite of misogynistic. In fact, it explores what the masculine and feminine sides of human nature are with an openness that you won't find in any number of cynical films like Anywhere But Here that pander to women by assuming that they want uncomplicated weepies. Fight Club dares to ask questions and try out different theories. It makes arguments and then disproves them.
Fight Club deserves concentration and actually demands it. You can watch it purely as entertainment, but that would be an emotionally and physically draining experience. It is so uncompromising in its tone and themes that you have to see the thought process behind the razzle-dazzle. That there even is one is already remarkable, but that it is so complex is astounding. So many films, like Boogie Nights seem to be going somewhere and then go off track and end up achieving nothing. When I first saw Fight Club opening night I wasn't sure that I knew where it was going and felt myself being jerked into a million different directions. It was exhausting and I wasn't really sure what I thought afterwards. But after hours and hours of discussion and thought I felt like I had figured it out and now that I am confident that it leads somewhere worthwhile I can watch it and completely give myself over to it. Even having seen it already it constantly surprises. I don't think there has ever been a film like this before.
To those that think the message is something like "Get out and live": Glad to see you're thinking about the movie beyond a knee-jerk "It's stupid / it's fascist / it's kick-ass!" reaction. Now watch again and look closer. It is so much more than that.
To those that think it is an anti-capitalism movie: It's not. That was the ad campaign and it was geared to get you in. Ultimately it is about a lot more than that.
To those searching for answers: Yes this movie is complex. But it is consistent. The points it tries to make it makes. It doesn't fall apart at the end. If you read the book you'll find a less meaningful, more standard ending. The movie has a sort of happy ending that combines all of the themes from the film: hitting bottom, self destruction, gender issues, control issues...
Ultimately, you should just watch it and decide for yourself what it is about!
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.E-mail Gil at firstname.lastname@example.org