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 in the back parking lot of a convenience store? Tyler makes it seem like he’s going to off 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, “sh*tty 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 off 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 get rid of 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 .22, then comes into focus through the weapon’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 firearm 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: F*ck 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 deceased. 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!
Thanks so much for this analysis. I completely understand the personal connection you feel with Fight Club since it has also been such an important movie for myself. I remember coming out of seeing it for the first time at the cinema and standing in line to get into the next session again.
The ending has a connection that blew my mind already in that first session. It is with the famous painting The Arnolfini Portrait/The Arnolfini Marriage by Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/jan-van-eyck-the-arnolfini-portrait
The final shot is an update of this image shot from the Arnolfini’s mirror, in the background of the portrait. The connection makes even more sense with a little information about what this portrait means.
The Arnolfini Portrait was painted on 15th century and is one of the first non hagiographic paintings (representing humans, not saints) in history. It was painted during XV in Flanders and it is entailed to the raising of bourgeois society, with an economy based on luxury textiles and trade, favored by Flanders strategic location.
By filming “the Arnolfini” from the back, Fincher is connecting both ends of raising and downfall of bourgeoisie through a link that travels the history of representation of the individual in visual culture.
The definition of the Narrator by his possessions, which is shown so clearly for example in the Ikea scenes was also already shown in these primitive Flemish paintings where every detail is there to show the protagonists wealth: oranges, the specific type of shoes, etc. We know we have some quotes in both Fincher’s book and the film to wake up people from this illusion.
I have mentioned this painting is also known as The Arnolfini Marriage. Because it actually is kind of a marriage document, showing the moment they get married, with the priest represented in the mirror with them, and Van Eyck being used as a “witness”, by his signature of the painting. The chaos takes the place of the priest in the case of Fight Club and we are placed as the witness for this new common beginning.
And a call to the audience can be found in yet one more element. Bourgeois were rich and intellectually driven to luxury and art, and they begin to commission art that represent themselves. They deserved it, they could as well be the main characters, as gods, and saints, and kings were up till then. Paintings were at the time the most practical way to do so and bourgeois began to command them and used to place them in the chapels of their houses.
Let’s go back to the DVD (beautiful how Fight Club became a cult movie right there, in our “chapels”), to Netflix or whatever OTT and speed up 500 years:
“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS
I watched the movie yesterday and was blown away. Your analysis is incredible and really helped me understand the deeper themes.
Never take this article down! Amazing job.
Appreciate it Kaiah!
Some people don’t even understand the main story because they only analyze parts of the movie. Like overlooking the sinking ship in Titanic, but analyzing the love story between Rose and Jack.
The main story in Fight Club is about the process of enlightenment caused by a huge amount of mental suffering. the suffering is a result of identifying with the ego, the things we own and the roles we play in a society of hypocrites. The narrator’s subconscious mind creates a hallucination: Tyler Durden. it’s a self healing process, a psychosis. The narrator thinks, Tyler is a real person. Tyler shows him, what he needs to change in life in order to find his true self, which will end the suffering:
letting go of attachment. stop identifying with your ego, the things you own. the roles you play in society. It is in the nature of the ego feeling incomplete. buying new things and a better job makes the ego feel better temporarily, but the feeling of incompleteness will return. All of these are teachings of ZEN Buddhism.
Tyler says: “….never be complete, stop being perfect….”.
be what you really are. fighting is the meditation/stop thinking aspect. there are countless more hints in the movie for the process of achieving enlightenment:
destroying the ego of new project mayhem members. intentionally losing fights, Tyler and Ed Norton destroy fancy cars with baseball bats, but they stop at the ordinary car, and move on to the next ego-feeding car.
enlightenment is mentioned several times in the movie, for instance the chemical burn scene which teaches: don’t run away from suffering, it let us evolve and grow.
at the end of the movie the narrator realizes, that Tyler is a hallucination, and shoots himself. injured, he is telling Marla: “I am ok, I am really ok, trust me. everything is gonna be fine” the injury doesn’t matter, because the narrator’s suffering has ended.
he kills Tyler, because he wants to stop him (himself) from destroying buildings and harm other people. Tyler was his ideal self, but he can’t allow him(self) to do that, even if he feels like to do so. Tyler didn’t care, because he is created from his subconscious mind, where emotions and beliefs have priority.
Definitely agree with a lot of that! And I’ll be reading more about Fight Club soon and getting into a lot more than what I did in this article. So I’m excited about that. There definitely is a ton of stuff relating to ego and roles and being in the moment rather than avoiding.
I do disagree with the last paragraph. While wanting to stop the destruction of the buildings brought Norton to that location, when he finally gets rid of Tyler, it’s too late to stop the buildings. And he has no negative reaction to the buildings actually blowing up. Shooting Tyler is more an act of reintegration and finally being in a place where he feels whole. He’s learned to, as you referenced, live with his suffering. To be at peace in the pain rather than running away from it (which is what Tyler was, an act of running away).
Appreciate the comment. As much as I’ve thought about Fight Club, I’ve never thought of the chemical burn moment as symbolic for the larger state of being alive. That embodies and simplifies the entire movie. Wow.