In 1999, David Fincher’s Fight Club became a cultural sensation. College dorm rooms weren’t complete without at least one poster that spouted the movie’s cheeky slogan: “Mischief. Mayhem. Soap,” the song “Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies took on a whole new meaning, and fans spent hours upon hours scouring the film for easter eggs.
Fight Club was (and remains) immensely popular for a wealth of reasons. Of course, there’s Brad Pitt shirtless, and then there’s the added bonus of endlessly-quotable one-liners and exhilarating fight scenes. But perhaps most important to the film’s legacy is that it boasts of the most shocking and rewarding twist endings in the history of cinema.
Fight Club follows a nameless narrator (Edward Norton) who struggles with insomnia, depression, and the crushing weight of mindless consumerism. He’s ready to end it all when handsome, charismatic bad boy/soap maker Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) whirls into his life like a handsome hurricane and encourages him to step out of his shell and co-found a fight club.
Things get out of hand when Tyler, The Narrator, and their devoted fandom create “Project Mayhem”: an anti-capitalist terrorist organization that plans to (literally) destroy money-sucking organizations like credit card companies.
But before he can save the world, The Narrator makes a shocking discovery. Tyler is actually – drum roll – a figment of his imagination: a cooler, sexier, braver, smarter version of himself that he thinks up to help himself cope with his achingly tedious life.
At the end of Fight Club, The Narrator decides that the only way he can get rid of Tyler and his maniacal, murderous schemes is to kill himself, too. So he sticks a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger but misses, shooting the bullet into his cheek instead of his brain. But even though he is alive, he still manages to get rid of his rebellious alter-ego.
After he fires the gun, The Narrator’s kind-girlfriend Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) enters the room and sees what he’s done to his face. Cool as a cucumber, he grabs her hand, and the two watch a credit card headquarters go up in flames. Cue: The Pixies. Roll credits.
Even if you haven’t seen Fight Club, chances are you know this final shot. But apart from being an undeniably iconic frame, why did Fincher see this particular image as the perfect ending for this film?
Fight Club’s ending makes a lot more sense when you look at the movie through the lens of control. Indeed, The Narrator’s craving for control is the very reason he spawns Tyler, to begin with. Before meeting his alter-ego, he makes desperate attempts to acquire control over some element of his life: first by furnishing his apartment and then by attending illness support group meetings in the hopes of feeling something other than boredom.
But it isn’t until he creates Tyler that The Narrator is taught the true meaning of control. Tyler’s core philosophy states that, in order to really live, you have to relinquish control.
We see this when he holds hot lye against The Narrator’s hand and tells him to surrender to the pain; we see this when he lifts his hands off the steering wheel while speeding down the highway, and we see this in the ethos of Fight Club as a whole: there is freedom in rejecting our resistance to pain and our obsession with law and order and just letting someone beat the living crap out of you.
So what’s next for The Narrator? We know that he has a new lease on life and is starting a relationship with Marla.
We also know, since he contentedly looked out the window while the credit card company went up in flames, that he is aware that Project Mayhem is too big for him to put a stop to. But hey, you can’t control everything, right?
And what about Tyler? Is he just… gone? The short answer is yet, but a part of him will undoubtedly stay with The Narrator forever.
Earlier in the film, Tyler discusses his time as a projectionist, explaining that he would splice crude images between frames to mess with audiences. And before Fight Club’s credits roll, lo and behold, we catch a glimpse of one of these images. Tyler lives on.