Why 'Fight Club' May Be A Smarter Film Than You Think

'Fight Club' is doomed to go down as a misunderstood movie.
Why 'Fight Club' May Be A Smarter Film Than You Think

Fight Club is doomed to go down as a misunderstood movie, mainly due to people being unable to remember the last half of it (you know, when everything Tyler Durden says turns out to be wrong). This isn't just a story about how the system is bullshit; it's a story about a guy coming to terms with guilt, and realizing the degree to which he's been complicit in that system.

In fact, I think Tyler Durden, the Brad-Pitt-looking dude who turns out to be the Narrator's alternate personality, was a real person -- someone who died at some point before the events of the film, in a car made by the protagonist's company. Let's run through it ...

First, Why Is The Narrator So Angry At His Boss?

The subplot involving the Narrator and his boss has always confused the hell out of me. This is the one person he clearly despises from the depths of his heart. But why?

Sure, most people aren't in love with their bosses, but the one early interaction they have is a routine employer-to-employee conversation, in which he's asked to get some paperwork done. We don't see any examples of mistreatment. The job requires a lot of travel and stress, but he's getting a fat paycheck for it, enough to buy all of that stuff he's been hoarding in his condo.

Once the Fight Club stuff starts, the Narrator begins to regularly show up at work with a messed-up face and bloodsoaked clothes, is rude to colleagues, smokes, and lashes out when mildly confronted. His boss reacts to all this by ... calmly asking him to take some time off. In response, the Narrator later shows up in his office, tries to blackmail him into paying him not to work, and beats the shit out of himself to frame his boss for assault. He pauses to triumphantly say/think, "I am Jack's smirking revenge."

I'm sorry, but revenge for what? Clearly there's only one person being an asshole here, and it's you. Unless, of course, we're missing key context.

Viewers simplify this whole sequence to "He hates working in an office job that robs him of his masculinity," but that just makes our hero look like a psychopath. Why not look for a different job? Preferably one that requires less travel? But this character has this particular job for a reason. The movie doesn't make him, say, a traveling salesman or copier repair tech.

It turns out that company and that bossknowingly sends out cars with, quote, "front seat mountings that failed collision tests," "brake linings that stop working after a 1,000 miles," and "fuel injectors that explode and burn people alive."

That, then, brings us to Tyler Durden. If this was just a story about a guy who hates being an office drone, then it would make sense that his imaginary friend / alter ego would be the manliest man's man his imagination could come up with. But that's not what this story about -- it's about coming to terms with a system that trades lives for a few dollars off the bottom line.

It makes much more sense if the "Tyler" the Narrator conjures into existence is the embodiment of this, a real person who died in one of those defective cars months or years before the movie starts. A case that the Narrator worked on. A case that broke him.

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It Starts With Mental Turmoil ... And Visions Of Tyler Showing Up Everywhere

We learn right at the start that the Narrator has been suffering from insomnia for the last six months, compulsively buying stuff and visiting support groups for illnesses he doesn't have. This is because it's the only setting in which he feels like he's allowed to cry and have genuine communication with others (leaving unspoken that the world's dumb views about masculinity keep him from doing it elsewhere).

These are not the actions of somebody who's frustrated with their day job. These are the behaviors of someone processing trauma and grief. At the same time, we get one of the celebrated elements from the movie that everyone keeps passing off as just cool foreshadowing: the subliminal flash frames of Tyler turning up before the Narrator meets him for the first time on a plane.

Tyler's appearances don't seem random to me. First, they're right in the Narrator's line of sight (you never see him, say, appear behind Edward Norton), meaning they're part of what he's seeing/thinking as opposed to just being a wink at the audience. It happens at work, right when the Narrator says "Everything's a copy of a copy" ...

... at the doctor's office, when the doc says, "That's pain" ...

... and in one of the group therapy sessions, when the leader says, "Let's all of us follow Thomas's example and really open ourselves up."

There's a clear pattern here. Tyler stems from the Narrator's inner turmoil, and that, in turn, is linked to his work and his need for some kind of therapy. These are haunted places, inhabited by a (psychological) ghost who won't let the main character rest.

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Then We Get Hints About Why He Feels Guilt

So let's look at the sequence leading up to Tyler's first official appearance. The Narrator and Marla agree to split the week's groups sessions so they don't have to see each other again. She is walking away from him, then suddenly stops in the middle of traffic and asks the Narrator what his real name is -- the only time his identity is ever directly questioned in the film. Right after this, a bus speeds through between them, and a sequence of short scenes follow, voiced over by a monologue, which we can take for an answer of sorts.

It shows the Narrator waking up in different time zones in different cities, stuck in a limbo between sleep and wakefulness through it all. Between flights, he can be seen inspecting a crash site with an overturned car. Then we see Tyler plainly on screen for the first time, passing by as a stranger right when the Narrator asks, "Could you wake up as a different person?"

The scene shifts to a garage, where the Narrator is inspecting a car whose passengers burned to death, one of his colleagues joking about the whole thing. The Narrator describes his job as a recall coordinator, and how it's often cheaper for automakers to just settle in court with the families of dead victims than to try to prevent those deaths in the first place. Then it's revealed that he's saying all of this to a random woman he's seated next to on yet another flight.

To underline his guilt, immediately after he finishes his story, he prays for a plane crash, and imagines it actually happening. Now maybe it's just my own lack of sleep making me see things, but check out this still from right before the imaginary crash, and judge for yourself whether that thing outside the window looks like a plane or a flying car with its headlights on:

And as soon as he snaps out of the imaginary crash, he finds Tyler seated next to him.

Tyler's first lines, addressed to the Narrator, are read from the passenger safety manual: "If you are seated in an emergency exit row, and feel you are unable or unwilling to perform the duties listed on the safety card, please ask a flight attendant to reseat you." The Narrator jokes that it's a lot of responsibility, and declines Tyler's request to switch seats because he feels he isn't the man for that particular job. That is, the job of saving lives.

Related: The First Half Of Fight Club Was In A Movie You Never Saw

Then We Get His Blood And Cleaning Obsessions

In a movie known for its badass lines and exchanges, this one between the Narrator and his boss is by far my favorite:

Boss: "Is that your blood on your shirt?"

Narrator: "Some of it, yes."

But look closely, and you see that he alternates between wearing his bloodstains with pride and desperately trying to scrub them away. The Narrator's cleaning obsession is actually a motif throughout the film. Early on he talks about how he used to get back home from work and obsessively clean his condo. After Tyler appears, the movie progresses into a weird paradox whereby the Narrator's appearance keeps deteriorating even though he's constantly seen cleaning himself.

There is more than one scene of the Narrator brushing his teeth. He is also seen obsessively scrubbing a stain off his coat with a toothbrush. There are multiple scenes in which he is showering, or sitting in the bathroom with Tyler in the tub.

And what does Tyler do? He makes soap, which we find out is created from human fat.In fact, at one point, he discusses at length how soap was first made from the ashes of the dead.

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The Movie Really, Really Hates Cars

We get a series of hints throughout the film that point to a brewing sense of vengeance against the auto industry. Right from the time Tyler tells the Narrator that a woman throwing his penis out of a moving car would be worse than his condo blowing up, to this non-sequitur as they are walking up to Tyler's Paper Street address:

"Where's your car?"

"What car?"

This is in reference to Tyler speeding off in a sports car earlier (the punchline is that he stole it). It seems important to the story that Tyler doesn't have a car. Or at least, he doesn't have one anymore. Meanwhile, look at the homework assignments Tyler hands out to people at Fight Club. So many of them are linked to automobiles. They smack parked luxury cars with baseball bats. They spread bird feed so a bunch of BMWs get covered in shit.

The assignment in which men are asked to get into a fight and lose on purpose includes a guy working a tire store hosing down a man passing by, a guy beating up a representative at a car showroom, and of course, the Narrator himself blackmailing his boss with his knowledge of his company's disregard for customer safety, and then staging an assault to draw a hefty payoff from the company.

Little hints of the real Tyler's car accident show up here and there. When the Narrator is reading out the "I am Jack's colon" bits, Tyler is riding around a bicycle, and then crashes it. Then there'sthis still from the scene wherein they blow up a computer shop which may have escaped your notice. As we dissolve from one shot to the next, here's Tyler, on fire:

And of course, a pivotal moment in the film comes when Tyler gets the Narrator into a car and takes his hands off the wheel, intentionally crashing it. In fact ...

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The Narrator Was Trying To Die In The Same Way "Tyler" Did

The Narrator is never meant to experience the events leading up to his discovery of Tyler's real nature. That's because he was supposed to die in the car crash Tyler orchestrated for him right after Project Mayhem had been set in motion.

Dying in a car crash would have been the most fitting absolution for him in the context of his guilt. It is immediately after the crash that Tyler disappears, only reappearing once the Narrator actively tries to stop Project Mayhem from going forward.

The crash is, of course, one of two instances in which Tyler tries to take the Narrator down to "rock bottom" through pain. The other is the scene in which he gives him a chemical burn, during which the Narrator experiences vivid images of flames and tries very hard not to think of the words "searing flesh." It wasn't that long ago that this character was sleepwalking through an investigation of a fiery crash, his colleague cracking jokes about the melted fat on the seats. Now Tyler, aka the memory of a dead crash victim, puts him through a crash and the feeling of his own flesh burning.

Young guys in 1999 watched this and thought it was about toughness. He's learning to be a real man by enduring physical pain! No, he's learning to be a real man by enduring something much more brutal and difficult:


Yes, the system is bullshit, but the narrator already knew that. Every teenager knows that. What "Tyler" taught him was that he had allowed the system to numb his humanity, to absolve himself of the role he had played. The answer was not, in fact, to start breaking shit and jerking off in people's chowder. The answer was to wake up and take responsibility for what he was doing to his fellow human beings. Only then, with that realization, does Tyler stop haunting him.

Eamon Lahiri has written a bunch of stuff for a bunch of outlets that you can check out on his hastily organized portfolio. To hire him to do any of these things for you, mail him at eamon.lahiri@gmail.com, or say hi on Twitter.

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