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Fight Club Still Has One of the Best Movie Twists, But Don't Overthink It

Tyler Durden probably doesn’t want you overthinking David Fincher’s violent dystopian masterpiece.

By Benjamin Bullard
A bloodied Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and The Narrator (Edward Norton) sit next to each other in Fight Club (1999)

In real life as in the movie itself, the big, famous mantra and “first rule” of Brad Pitt’s live-in-the-moment hero Tyler Durden in Fight Club (streaming here on Peacock) is probably best taken at face value: “You do not talk about Fight Club.” Vindicated from a tepid early 1999 box office showing by what’ll probably remain eternally receptive new generations of cult-following streaming fans, it's the kind of story that carries heavy direct impact — which was probably the whole point in the first place.

What David Fincher’s counterculture gut-punch has gotten instead, over the years, is an endless ream of deep analysis. One minute it’s a statement about the emptiness of material-minded Gen-X values; the next it’s a cheap, testosterone-laden power play to woo out everyone’s bratty little inner alpha male dying to break free from the withering forces of civilized society. Even the late Roger Ebert (who wasn’t a fan) eventually capitulated to a scene-by-scene breakdown of the movie, confessing his admiration for Fincher’s craft had sort of started to grow on him — even as his antipathy toward Fight Club’s eruptively subversive themes fell further off a cliff.

That big Fight Club twist: Brad Pitt fades Project Mayhem

With only three feature films under his early-career directing belt (Alien 3, Se7en, and The Game), Fincher took on Fight Club right at the angsty turn of the millennium, adapting author Chuck Palahniuk’s eponymous 1996 novel for a late 1999 debut that fell just before the big, much-feared Y2K digital switch-off that never came. And for all its cleverly concealed subterfuge in keeping the split identity of Edward Norton’s unnamed (and unreliable) narrator under wraps until the appointed plot point; for all its depth in plumbing the restless psyche of an affluent office worker whose life has gotten way too cozy; it still adheres to the same key thread that’s since come to define most of Fincher’s movies: If you’re trying to overanalyze this stuff, you’re probably robbing yourself of a good time.

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Like his latest 2023 film (The Killer starring Michael Fassbender), 1997's The Game, and all his other delightfully surprising 1990s movie switcheroos, Fincher makes films that attract intellectual deep dives — and yet almost all of them are better appreciated by not overthinking things.

The just-sit-back-and-enjoy-it approach is definitely the way we’d recommend watching Fight Club for both first-timers and for fans who haven’t seen the movie in a while. For one thing, it’ll spare you from missing out on the immediacy of all the fully bought-in performances from its killer cast (including Helena Bonham Carter, Jared Leto, and Meat Loaf in addition to the always-awesome Pitt and Norton). And for another, it’ll amplify the insanity when that big, identity-merging plot twist — still one of the biggest “A-ha!” moments anywhere to be found at the movies — brings the hammer down on Norton’s character and “Project Mayhem,” his self-made (and self-destructive) monument to nihilistic freedom.

Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) talks on a black phone between her head and shoulders in Fight Club (1999)

What’s the twist? Fight Club’s such a cult classic at this point that you probably know already. But if you don’t, well… just watch the movie. Without giving away the whole game, Norton’s nameless narrator and Pitt’s swashbuckling Tyler Durden make for the perfect yin-and-yang friendship duo, playing Norton’s ennui-soaked yuppie cowardice against Pitt’s instinct-driven propensity to cut a clear and direct path to brutal self-honesty. But in a movie that raises their buddy stakes to serious levels — we’re talking the kind of underground intrigue here that eventually amounts to full-scale domestic terrorism — only one of these fellas can actually make it out (sorta) alive… and it arrives at that point with a plot revelation about Tyler’s identity that’s right up there with Christopher Nolan’s Memento in terms of audience shock value.

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Fight Club the movie had to condense a ton of lengthier exposition from Palahniuk’s original Fight Club novel to give its big twist maximum impact. But for Fincher, it was already par for the directorial course. In both Se7en (“John Doe has the upper hand!”) and The Game (where nothing for Michael Douglas’ hero ends up as it seems), he’d already provided viewers with similarly stark, immensely satisfying rug-pull moments.

Sure, there are layers and layers of analysis there for the deeper probing in Fight Club, just as there are in later Fincher films like The Social Network and Gone Girl. But we swear that stuff will still be there, just waiting to be explored, on repeated viewings — whereas Fight Club’s often-overlooked value as a pure popcorn movie deserves a fresh chance to resonate on its own terms. Watch it (or watch it again) as pure entertainment for its straightforward story thrills — just as you would a deceptively simple Hitchcock movie like Psycho, let’s say — and let Fincher’s dystopian masterpiece find its first foothold with your eyes and your heart instead of your brain.

Fight Club is streaming on Peacock here.