A review requested by Alex D, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

More than a decade and a half after its underwhelming theatrical performance that sneakily begot one of the most omnipresent movie cults of the early '00s (I was in college in those days; the film was inescapable), I have to admit that I really have no damn clue what to make of Fight Club. It would be an insane thing to deny that the film is consummately well-made, and it's impossible to overlook how much it starts to overreach in its second half and especially its final quarter, as it begins to lose sight of whatever the hell it was trying to do in a flurry of super-clever twists that are very similar to, but importantly distinct from the twists in Chuck Palahniuk's source novel, adapted by Jim Uhls.

It is, I think, the platonic ideal of A Film By David Fincher; not because it uses his skills to best effect, by any means (I am quite sure that honor belongs to Zodiac, and even by the time Fight Club came out in '99, the director already had Se7en behind him), but because it best typifies the thing that he always does, whether it works well (as in those two serial killer films), or whether it sets the movie on fire (most flamboyantly in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button): he always puts a lot of energy and investment into working out the mechanics of how he wants to make this film, attending to the craft of cinema with an almost holy focus. And he always does this at the expense of the connection between that craft and anything else. That's resulted in films that are, in the aggregate, worse than Fight Club, but I don't believe he's made anything as split between its intentions and its effect.

We'll circle back to that. Meanwhile, I do not, truly, know how much this film's cult remains robust and important in the daily lives of cinephiles, so I shouldn't talk about Fight Club like we all know what I mean. The film's unnamed protagonist, played by Edward Norton, is an insomniac office drone whose soul-crushing job involves, very specifically, trying to help his company determine how much money human lives are worth. He's found one unconventional and rather shady, if ultimately harmless way of releasing his stress and angst at the world not working out properly: he attends support groups for various grave illnesses, and lets himself be carried away on a wave of crying and intimacy (feigned intimacy, but it's the best he's got). The first serpent in his paradise comes in the form of Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter, in the role that inaugurated the "Crazy Wigs and Too Much Kohl" era of her career), who's also lying her way through the support group circuit, more out of boredom than anything else, and who pops his bubble of protection. The second, who at first seems like a divine guiding light, is Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a homemade soap manufacturer and salesman that our boy meets on a plane.

They end up living together in the ancient, falling-down mansion in the city's warehouse district where Tyler has planted his flag of late, after the narrator's posh-appointed apartment explodes in a freak accident. It's from this pre-modern base of operation that Tyler begins to craft his philosophy of anti-consumerism, seeking to replace the lost self-reliance of modern masculinity that has been bred out by too many white-collar jobs and bourgie junk shops like IKEA and Starbucks. Seized by a random inspiration on their first night, Tyler asks the narrator to punch him outside of a bar, and in hardly any time, they - and an ever-increasing circle of like-minded lost souls - have formed Fight Club, a basement athletic club of sorts in which men fight, one pair at a time, in unrestrained bare-knuckle brawls, just for the sake of feeling anything. And this seems to make everybody's life better, right up until the narrator starts to figure out that Tyler is actually planning a most destructive form of anarchy that goes far deeper than convincing middle-class men that they don't need so much stuff. And there's absolutely no point to talking about Fight Club 16 years later without letting spoilers happen, so if you haven't seen the film and think you might want to - even though I frankly don't like it very much, I still believe that it's an essential piece of American cinema that needs to be studied and grappled with for plenty of reasons - here's your place to bail out.

The issue with Fight Club that transcends all other issues is not a mysterious one; those of us who don't love it have been identifying it for years now (I, personally, first made a version of this argument in 2002, and I was already parroting someone else, long-forgotten). Basically, Fight Club is David Fincher being too good at his job in the wrong way. This is, pretty clearly, a satire of the kind of wannabe superhero American masculinity that felt weakened and feminised by the economic boom and attendant emotional introspection of the 1990s - this is such a Clinton-era movie, above and beyond the fact that it's final scene would be unthinkable just two years after its premiere, in the wake of 9/11/01 - that does exactly what satire is supposed to do: it starts out with perfectly simple precepts that anybody ought to be able to agree with (IKEA overcharges you for dubiously "stylish" particleboard crap with ludicrous names), starts nudging that towards a heightened level (which is why you should feel totally excited if your apartment and all your possessions blow up), and eventually races full-out towards the kind of clearly unacceptable claims that are meant to show the basic intellectual instability of a position that might not seem at all weird if you only encounter it one bite at a time. In this case, the idea that males can only defend their maledom through increasingly militarised acts of violence.

So what happens is that Fincher, with his methodical, surgical approach to building cinema, looks at the situation that must be devised: the narrator must be seduced by Tyler. So he very flashily visualises the choking ennui of a consumption-driven lifestyle - the film's IKEA catalogue montage is legitimately one of the finest sequences in the director's career at the level of technique - and he glorifies the DIY lifestyle that Tyler lives, treating it with a certain level of irony that's nevertheless clearly enthusiastic and friendly and funny, and he stages Fight Club with the intensity and dazzlement of '90s action cinema at its fleetest. Which was not too fleet, for the most part (not in America), and so it's easy for the fight sequences to feel absolutely stunning and exciting compared to almost everything else that shared its historical moment. And he has done such a great job of building all that up, he can't back out of it. The problem at the core of Fight Club is that it's appealing because of its style, and then it tries to walk back from that at an entirely intellectual level, and it's a mishmash of energies that makes absolutely no sense. The movie says that it's horrified at Tyler's excesses, but it feels jazzed up by them, and that's before the filmmakers make the absolutely unforgivable choice to let the destruction of skyscrapers at the end play as the visual punchline for the narrator and Marla to end up together, the explosions filling almost exactly the same role as the fireworks in To Catch a Thief. Movies are a visual medium; if you show us explosions in a romantic, exciting way, that matters more than telling us that they are amoral at best, and by that point in the screenplay, Fight Club really isn't concerned with even telling us that. The result is a film that's irreconcilably broken between its thoughts and its guts, and there was no way the guts were going to lost. Not with such extraordinarily visceral work being done by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (whose offensively good capturing of the chilly shine of nighttime made him a great Fincher collaborator, making it dumbfounding and annoying they'd wait a whole decade before teaming up again for The Social Network), editor James Haygood (funneling with slurry abandon between moments, channeling music video technique with a keen sense of the needs of a feature), and electronic/hip hop producers Dust Brothers to provide the jarring, frequently toneless and always intensifying score.

The Big Ol' Twist really doesn't help matters. If this was a film about the narrator trying to stop his secretly insane buddy Tyler Durden, it would have been a great deal easier to sell the idea that the film's last forty minutes are there to disprove the first ninety; if this was a film about a man finding that he's secretly insane, and unpacking all the things that he's done as "Tyler Durden", it could have been a great psychological thriller. Doing both of those things gets muddy as hell. But I do have to hand it to Fincher and Uhls: having only finally seen the movie for a second time, knowing the twist on your way through is a marvelous experience. The way that dialogue and blocking very casually state outright things that we're simply not interested in learning yet is brazen in the best way; the weird one-frame insert shots of Pitt before he appears as a character go from being a punkish in-joke to crafty foreshadowing, especially since it's also much easier to see how much of the film is being presented from the narrator's sleep-deprived POV without actually flagging it as such. Take out the social commentary, and Fight Club, and the rather mean jokes at the expense of people trying to muddle through sickness with emotional support groups, and there's a fucking wonderful depiction of psychological unreliability that even makes Pitt's oddly uni-dimensional performance turn out to be a strength instead of a weakness. But that's taking a hell of a lot of things out.

So back to where we started: I really have no damn clue what to make of Fight Club. It's all technically gorgeous, and along with The Matrix, I'm inclined to call it one of the first American films of the 21st Century, for all its accelerated continuity and don't-stop-to-think aesthetic. But it's such a wreck of tone and intellect, and it's so inhuman in ways that all Fincher films ultimately turn out to be; but no other Fincher film takes place so necessarily inside one person's head for 100% of its running time. It's electrifying, stylish cinema, of course, and I honestly do get why people love it - whether they love its cool or its satire of the same cool. That right there, I think, is why I can't pretend to come even close to loving it myself.