Honestly, this is one of those articles that you kind of avoid because it feels too personal. Which might be a weird thing to say about Fight Club. I’ve never had a split personality, much less any personality that’s looked like or acted like Brad Pitt. But, all the same, Fight Club‘s a movie that’s been really important to me. And when you try to explain a beloved movie or book or whatever to other people, you hope you do so in a way that makes them feel the way you feel about it. In other words—it’s easy to put a lot of pressure on yourself.
Pressure creates stress. Stress creates anxiety. Anxiety creates paralysis. Paralysis creates desire. Desire turns to yearning. Yearning begets action. Action leads to catharsis. Catharsis to relief.
And that’s the story of Fight Club. On the human level, it’s the journey from stagnation to rebirth. The journey is bonkers, of course, because exaggeration and dramatization can often capture emotions and parts of reality better than realism. But all of that is only a means to an end. It’s the “how,” not the why.
To understand the “why” we have to zoom out from the human level. Fight Club is very concerned with American consumerism, marketing, and corporatization, and how those things strip us of our individuality. Through such societal influeces, you’re constantly told how to behave, what to buy, how you should look, how you should think, what you should aspire to be. To the point where you can subjugate yourself, forgetting entirely what it is you want, how it is you feel, how to express yourself.
To take it to an extreme point: why exist if being you doesn’t matter? If you’re doing what everyone else does, buying what everyone else buys, saying what everyone else says—is there even a “you”? Or are you merely another statistic?
Fight Club doesn’t want you to be a statistic. It wants you to be an individual who is seen, heard, felt, and acting based on your wants, hopes, needs, and dreams. You should be someone who has agency in the world and affects the world. The way in which Fight Club shows this is violent, exaggerated, and kind of absurd. But we’re not supposed to recreate the movie in our day to day lives. No one should start a fight club or cause physical damage to a Blockbuster (which you can’t even do anymore) or a Starbucks or another chain. Don’t start a cult or join a cult. If you like Starbucks, you like Starbucks. Just don’t like Starbucks because you think you should, ya know?
So let’s get into it.
You’ll hear us say it a lot, but the last shot of a movie like Fight Club can serve as an “in-road” to understanding the rest of the movie. So what do we see in the last shot?
- Jack (Edward Norton (aka The Narrator)) holds hands with Marla (Helena Bonham Carter)
- Out the window, buildings explode and collapse
There’s a ton to unpack about just these two details. Let’s start with the buildings.
The buildings are the headquarters of the major credit card companies. This was Tyler Durden’s (Brad Pitt) plan—if you destroy these physical locations, you destroy the debt records (this is before cloud storage existed); if you destroy the debt records, then you free people from their financial burden; if people are free from their financial burden, they feel less pressure; if they feel less pressure, they can actively pursue their hopes and dreams; if you can pursue your hopes and dreams, you’re being your true self.
Remember Raymond, the cashier Tyler holds up at gun point in the back parking lot of a convenience store? Tyler makes it seem like he’s going to kill Raymond. But not before asking some questions. “What did you want to be, Raymond K. Hessel?” The answer? A veterinarian!
The problem with becoming a vet, according to Raymond, was too much school. While he doesn’t explicitly mention money, we see Raymond’s a convenience store cashier, and learn he lives in a, quote, “shitty basement apartment.” It’s safe to assume Raymond probably has some financial issues. That’s probably what he meant by “too much school.” Too much tuition. Too much debt.
The scene ends with Tyler threatening Raymond. If Raymond’s not on the path to becoming a vet in 6 weeks, Tyler will kill him. Jack chastises Tyler. Why do that? What was the point of that?
Tyler: “Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted.”
On the surface, what Tyler’s referring to is Raymond’s joy at still being alive. After a near-death experience, still being alive is pretty wonderful. But the beauty goes beyond that. Raymond had given into his own sense of obstruction. Becoming a vet involved “too much school.” But Raymond has to pursue becoming a vet or Tyler will kill him. Tyler’s removed the obstruction. Meaning Raymond is finally able to commit to becoming a vet—it’s literally a matter of life or death.
Think about that in terms of the last shot.
At the start of the final shot, the buildings dominate the skyline and clog the view out the window. But once destroyed? The view opens up. Instead of seeing only the physical representation of debt, you have miles of visual freedom. Just like that, the Raymonds of the world have new hope.
Of course, the metaphor goes further than just financial freedom. As much as Fight Club is about liberation from capitalism’s influence, it’s also about our own fears and limitations and traumas and ability to act and connect and relate. So much of the film’s first half gets into those negatives and restraints. We fall prey to capitalism because of damage and hang ups. We’re looking for someone or something to direct us, to guide us, because so many feel incapable of guiding themselves.
Jack has insomnia, so he goes to the doctor for an answer. He’s sad, so he goes to grief group for an answer. Later in the movie, Tyler tell’s this story (which is actually Jack’s story): “My Dad never went to college, so of course it’s real important that I go. So I graduate, I call him up long-distance and say, ‘Now what?’ He says, ‘Get a job.’ So, I’m 25, I call again and say, ‘Now what?’ He says, ‘I dunno. Get married.'”
There’s a continued motif of these guides being imperfect. Whether it’s the doctor, the grief group, the grief counselor, your dad, your boss, your cult leader—despite their wisdom, they aren’t you. Meaning they probably don’t know what’s best for you. So the buildings also represent the many disparate influences in our lives that keep us from thinking and seeing for ourselves.
Jack didn’t need a doctor to tell him what was wrong. If he was being honest with himself, he’d admit that his insomnia and melancholy were a byproduct of hating his life because his life was nothing more than a cookie cutter existence. The proof being that when he changes his routine by adding in the grief groups—he finds relief. Then when he destroys his apartment—he gains confidence and even some joy.
Hopefully you can see the escalation that’s taking place. A routine change is smaller in scope than an apartment change. And an apartment change is nothing compared to a societal change. But each time he makes a change, Jack finds a little bit more catharsis, a little bit more self-actualization. And that’s really the implication of the buildings falling down. It’s literal in that Jack and millions of others now have freedom from debt. But it’s also symbolic in that Jack has cleansed himself of his past influences and routines and way of life. And is, for the first time in a long time (or maybe ever), really thinking for himself.
This contrasts really well with the beginning of the movie. The title sequence starts in Jack’s brain. The camera spends nearly a minute rushing by as the brain flashes with activity. It’s weird, closed in, intimate. At first, you probably don’t know where you are. Then the camera pulls out from a pore in Jack’s forehead, along the barrel of a gun, then comes into focus through the gun’s sights (a visual joke): we see Jack’s terrified face.
Art often works through contrasts. Especially when it comes to narrative and themes. It’s not interesting if a wealthy person gets wealthier. It’s interesting if a poor person becomes wealthy, or a wealthy person becomes poor. Look at most stories, and there’s a broad juxtaposition between two states of being.
Start: Luke Skywalker is your average Tatooine moisture farmer.
End: Luke is a war hero and potential Jedi.
Start: Michael Corleone is outside the mafia business, having nothing to do with his father’s empire.
End: Michael becomes the new head of the Corleone crime family.
Often, this juxtaposition is external to the character. It’s about their circumstances. Whether they’re weak or powerful, no one or someone, good or bad, boring or adventurous, innocent or experienced.
But you can have instances that are a little more existential or thematic. Internal. Which is where Fight Club goes.
Start: We’re literally in the cluttered, racing mind of the character.
End: We’re outside the character, with the view of an open sky.
Sure, Jack’s circumstances have changed—he’s no longer another worker bee, another drone devoid of individuality. But that’s an external byproduct to the internal transformation he’s undergone. Those falling buildings represent the clearing out of all the mental clutter that had held him back. Instead of claustrophobia of being stuck within Jack’s brain—the open sky and skyline summon the energy of liberty and potential.
And if you need a little further convincing. Remember what song is playing over that final scene? It’s by the Pixies and appropriately titled: “Where is My Mind?”
With your feet on the air and your head on the ground“Where is My Mind” – Pixies
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head will collapse, and there’s nothing in it
And you’ll ask yourself
“Your head will collapse, and there’s nothing in it” seems pretty appropriate. We started in that mental clutter. We end with mental emptiness. But in a good way. In a fresh start kind of way. Go back through Fight Club and there are a ton of instances of Jack overthinking or being paralyzed by indecision. Of course, Tyler is the exact opposite. Decisivie. Instinctual. Always prepared with something to say and what to do.
Getting out of your head can be necessary.
“You met me at a very strange time in my life”
The opening shot is Tyler with a gun in Jack’s mouth. The gun, a symbol of violence, literally serves as the bridge between these two men. Or, rather, between Jack and the version of himself he wishes he could be—his ideal man.
The last scene is Jack holding hands with Marla.
Start: Two men connected by a gun.
End: A woman and a man connected by holding hands.
There is so much you can analyze and discuss from this juxtaposition alone. About masculinity and femininity, about the influence of masculine vs feminine, about self-hatred, the power of love, vulnerability, and on and on. It’s the stuff of academic theses and textbooks.
For our purposes, Jack switching from a connection with Tyler to a connection with Marla only reinforces our earlier discussion about Jack being inside his own head vs being able to look outside himself. For most of the movie, Jack couldn’t have a relationship with Marla because he was so focused on Tyler. Now that he’s worked through enough of his baggage to come to terms with himself and accept himself for who he is (rather than who he wished he could be): Jack can really see Marla and be present with her.
This brings us back to the falling buildings, about banishing your unrealistic notions of how you thought life should be and who you need to be, both good and bad. Once you accept what your life is, who you are, and all the rest—you can actually live.
There’s the one scene where Tyler’s driving Jack and two Project Mayhem members.
Tyler: Fuck what you know. You need to forget about what you know, that’s your problem. Forget about what you think you know about life, about friendship, and especially about you and me.
Jack: What is that supposed to mean?
Tyler: [lets go of the steering wheel and let’s the car go across the yellow line to the wrong lane]
Jack: What are you doing?
Tyler: Guys, what would you wish you’d done before you died?
Mayhem Guy 1: Paint a self-portrait.
Mayhem Guy 2: Build a house.
Tyler (to Jack): You?
Jack: I don’t know. Turn the wheel now, come on!
Tyler: You have to know the answer to this question! If you died right now, how would you feel about your life?
Jack: I don’t know, I wouldn’t feel anything good about my life, is that what you want to hear me say? Fine. Come on!
The car eventually crashes, as Tyler convinces Jack to stop trying to control everything and “just let go.” Two important quotes come out of the crash.
Jack [in voice over]: I’d never been in a car accident. This must have been what all those people felt like before I filed them as statistics in my reports.
Tyler: We just had a near-life experience!
In the intro, I mentioned how Fight Club doesn’t want you to be a statistic. Jack’s a recall coordinator. He describes his job, through an early voice over: A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.
While this description goes on, the camera flashes to Jack in a garage, looking at a burnt car, as two other company men explain what happened to the car. An infant went through the windshield. A teenager’s braces fused to the back ashtray. The father’s fat burned into the driver’s seat. The guys make jokes about the dead. Their behavior is not only disrespectful but disgusting.
This is Fight Club defining not only how corporations view people but how people steeped in capitalism view one another.
Since Jack was part of that world, he had stopped seeing the humanity in others. Which led to him losing his own humanity. His relationship with Tyler is a brutal reawakening of that lost sense of self. And while individuality is clearly important to what Fight Club‘s saying about the human condition, it’s telling that the movie doesn’t simply end with Jack, alone and triumphant, having conquered Tyler.
Ending with Jack and Marla takes the film beyond the self. It’s not just about the individual. But about the individual’s ability to have any relationship. Whether that’s with yourself, with someone else, with your work, with nature, etc. And what it means to have a relationship with someone else. We’re not only defined by how we view ourselves, but by how others view us.
“Chris, are you about to bring this back to the buildings?”
You asking that question means you get it. And my work here is done.
The thing about Fight Club is that everything somehow comes back to the theme. This article could have been 20x as long as it is because everything is relevant and serves to highlight or support the main themes.
For example, when talking about Jack’s lack of humanity from being part of corporate culture: I could have gone on a long tangent about the support groups. And how they relate to Jack’s humanity. You could write an entire piece about just the role of the support groups. And I probably will, one day.
Everything is relevant. So please go back and watch Fight Club again, keeping in mind what we discussed here. You’ll hopefully see more connections and meaning in the individual scenes than ever before. If not, come back here with your questions, and I’ll do my best to answer.
Thanks for reading!