We know from Se7en and The Game that director David Fincher likes to evoke enclosed, solipsistic worlds which are also conundrums. Se7en's world is an unnamed, sepulchral US city where it's always raining, and life runs inexorably to the countdown of seven murders. Each killing is a symbolic retribution for a deadly sin and a dreadful tease for the investigating detectives played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt. In The Game, divorced financier Michael Douglas' insular life is upended when his younger brother signs him up for an exclusive new entertainment experience devoted to springing scary surprises on its clients. He soon finds himself in urban back lots, unable to distinguish real danger from the next 'surprise'. Fight Club not only fits the pattern of these predecessors like a bloodied rag glove, it also remakes them.

Just as Douglas' character suffers deep ennui at the consumer perfectionism of his existence, so Edward Norton's Jack, an accident investigator for an insurance company, is aghast at his own obsession with the Ikea catalogue. Just as Freeman and Pitt in Se7en are made to seem bent down by the weather and emasculated by propriety, so Jack the insomniac seems crushed by the lack of light, adventure and emotion in his life. Society in a Fincher film is an urban nightmare labyrinth disrupted by the seething, denatured and corralled male ego it was built to control. The difference with Fight Club is that nearly every other male in the film feels the same way as the protagonist. The Fight Clubs bring all men together, and what they seem to want to do is hit one another, hard, with bare knuckles, to get a sense of empowerment.

Long before we get to the on-screen hitting, though, the movie pummels the viewer with a furious attack of astonishing shots, body-slam cuts and Jack's chewable voiceover aphorisms: "I felt like putting a bullet in the eye of every panda that wouldn't screw to save its species." The plot starts with its end Jack with a gun in his mouth and shoots off back to the start of his insomnia. Even the sombre, night-time desolation that haunts Jack's first cure for sleeplessness his slumming in victim-support groups (for Aids, alcoholism, drug abuse, testicular cancer and so on) is a jagged affair of under-the-chin angles, eyeballing close-ups and shuddering sound effects. The arrival of Helena Bonham Carter as the slinky Marla, another group-therapy cuddle-junkie, ruining it for Jack, is announced with looks and sultry poses that jam into the corners of the frame. This is a movie that makes your skin crawl in a strangely delectable way.

But it's with the inception of Fight Club itself, which begins after Jack meets Tyler and right after Jack's apartment has inexplicably been blown up, that Fincher's most sophisticated conundrum yet hooks us. Tyler asks Jack to hit him in the face, hard. Jack hits him and gets hit back. As Jack and Tyler pound each other, men gather round intrigued and Jack is sure his sleeplessness has gone forever. Soon large groups of white- and blue-collar men file into bar basements and strip to the waist as Tyler expounds the rules: "The first rule about Fight Club is that you don't talk about Fight Club. The second rule about Fight Club is that you don't talk about Fight Club." The hitting makes a sly, seductive spectacle of lightweight masochism, homoerotic display and sardonic wit. Later, in one horrific scene of unhingement, it is brutally sadistic. But it remains a baffling, just-plausible compulsion.

Tyler seems to be completely free from any inhibition, able to acquire anything he wants through sheer force of will. Jack's exhilaration at meeting Tyler is undercut by Tyler's immediate sexual success with Marla and then dissipated when he fills their squatted house with Fight Club legions, organised to carry out terror missions. When Jack's grip on his self-control loosens, the film enacts a brilliant twist no caring reviewer ought to reveal. Inventive as it is, however, it also marks an escalation towards the fantastic which loses in conceptual momentum what it gains in dramatic thrills. So Fight Club is all of the following: a conspiracy thriller that never leaves the splashy imagination of a paranoid narrator; a value-free vessel that offers conflicting views on Nietzschean ideas about men and destruction; a dazzling entertainment that wants us to luxuriate in violence as we condemn it; a brilliant solution to depicting the divided self as a protagonist; and proof that Brad Pitt, as well as Edward Norton, can really act.

Charles Whitehouse /sight and sound

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