In Fight Club, directed by David Fincher, the narrator grapples with his meaningless life. While struggling with his insomnia, 'Jack' tries to fill the void in his day-to-day by buying Ikea furniture - an action many of us are guilty of. Essentially, his existence precedes his essence. Over time, Jack begins to create (unknowingly to himself and the viewers) ‘Tyler Durden’, someone who is a complete 180 of Jack. Throughout the film, we assume Tyler to be a reckless, self-imposing douchebag, but at the end, we slowly start to untangle and accept that Tyler is Jack (and actually, it's Jack who is Tyler). The dichotomy of Tyler/Jack in the movie is not that of two different people, but man versus himself. Several existentialist elements are further evident throughout Fight Club, including Jack’s want to find the meaning of life through his choices. By creating another personality in his mind (Tyler), Jack is able to finally live out the life he has always wanted and dreamed of - a life of essence and choice, not complacent and mindless existence.
Jack creates ‘Tyler Durden’ as a way of dealing with his mind-numbing, futile-existence life. The movie begins with Jack and his attempts to fight his insomnia due to the perpetual jet lag and stress from his job. In his countless attempts to cure the insomnia, he finds himself at support groups for various health issues, health issues that he doesn’t have (re: testicular cancer). At one of these meetings, a woman guides the group through a meditation and tells the group “Go deeper into the cave. You’re going to find your power animal”, with the cave acting as an allusion to "Allegory of the Cave" by Plato, the famous philosopher. Jack's cave is made of ice, representing his cold, chilling and isolated mind (10:30). Plato, who argued that our perceptions are the results of our experiences and understandings, believed that our understandings are what affect the way we perceive life. Plato urged people that instead of looking at the shadows on the wall, they find their way outside the cave to see the real world, one not hindered by their mindset that was created in that cave. In this particular scene, Jack is locked inside his own cave, his own mind, and finds himself facing a penguin who happily sing-songs the word “Slide” (10:58). A penguin, one of the few birds incapable of flying, has given in to his nature and is content with just sliding around. The woman guides the group to go deeper into the cave to find their animal, and in doing so, Jack realizes that at the center of his existence is conformity. The penguin reflects Jack’s complacency, yet it is the penguin who is actually satisfied with his life of non-flying while Jack keeps fighting where he stands in life, doubting and questioning his purpose. He looks at the penguin incredulously as it slides away further into the cave. Here, David Fincher (and Chuck Palahniuk, the author) plays with the existential ideas of a person struggling against his own individual nature. Jack is trying to find himself through introspection, but at the root of his nature, Jack knows he has conformed to society’s expectations of a man, one that is supposed to get a job, get married, have kids, and then die.
An existentialist believes that a person should be forced to choose and be responsible without the help of laws, ethnic rules or traditions; towards the middle of the movie, we see Jack and Tyler disobey laws, attack police commissioners, steal from a liposuction company, and burn smileys faces onto the windows of buildings with no regards for the rules. Though it is Tyler who says “Look, the people you are after are the people you depend on: we cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances, we guard you while you sleep.” (94:30), the word's are indicative of Jack’s anger and frustration at merely being just another office worker, just another boring face in the crowd. The commissioner, who has the higher authority and attempts to stop Tyler and Jack's vandalization, has a highly respectable job; Jack, however, is someone who is easily replaceable. The fact that Jack is a “Recall Coordinator” (20:20) for an unnamed car company further solidifies his dispensability - he can always be replaced at his job by anyone else. Because his company is unnamed, it’s implied that there are dozens of other companies that are exactly the same as his throughout the country. And during a flight at the beginning of the movie, when a female passenger asks him “Which car company do you work for?”, Jack replies “A major one” (21:25) adding further to the anonymity of his life, but also to the commonality of it. Additionally, his comment of "A major one" ties into Palahniuk's theme of anti-capitalism, that regardless of the company's name, there are several other major companies just like it, so what is in a name really? By saying “the people you are after are the people you depend on”, Jack, through Tyler, is trying to make himself important and show that his meaningless job of being a recall specialist is actually crucial to society in some way.
Throughout the movie, we are led to believe, based on what we see, that Tyler and Jack are two separate and opposite entities; but, as we see at the end, they really are the same person and they always have been. Through the art of misdirection, and with the presence of several subtle clues throughout, the 'concept' that Jack has always been Tyler every step of the way becomes clear. Tyler doesn’t exist in the physical reality - only in Jack’s mind. In the first fifteen minutes of the movie, Jack has subliminal flashes of Tyler that serve to show the creation of Tyler as an escape mechanism from Jack's everyday life. At 4:06, as Jack’s making copies, Tyler flashes to the left of the machine; at 6:18, Tyler is behind the doctor, at 7:33, Tyler’s behind the testicular cancer group leader, and at 12:36, as Jack watches Marla go home, Tyler flashes briefly while Jack has turned away. Finally, at 19:44, we see ‘Tyler’ in his full physicality with the camera panning to him; while Jack goes one way on the moving walkway at the airport, Tyler, of course, heads the opposite way. While Jack is in a gray suit, Tyler is in a white suit with a yellow dress shirt, creating the ever-obvious contrast between the two; Jack’s suit is neutral in color and he can easily blend into a crowd of other male workers who are all wearing the same boring suit. Tyler, on the other hand, is flashy with his yellow and white suit, representing his non-conformist, anarchic nature. Tyler is Jack’s way of expressing his rage and anger towards society. Tyler is flamboyant in his appearance, whereas Jack is more subdued. Tyler is cocky and arrogant, while Jack is a follower and follows Tyler's lead.
Around the 28 minute mark, Jack calls Tyler from a payphone, just as his apartment gets blown up. However, Tyler doesn’t respond to Jack’s first call so Jack begins to walk away; as he does, the payphone begins to ring and as Jack goes to answer it, the camera zooms in towards fine print which reads "Telenex" (probably the telephone manufacturer) and “no incoming calls accepted”. As blatantly obvious as that reads, it therefore means that Tyler could not have called back because the payphone wasn't capable of receiving any incoming calls to begin with. When Jack picks up the phone and says “Hello”, Tyler asks “Who’s this?” (28:34). Jack then looks up and looks straight into the distance, ominously answering “Tyler”. Initially, viewers would assume Jack's asking “Tyler?”, as in asking Tyler if this is him calling Jack back, but it's actually Jack confirming himself as Tyler instead.
In creating Tyler, Jack rejects his blase life, and cultivates from his own experiences, beliefs and outlooks, a new life and a new him. At 31:15, Tyler tells Jack “The things you own, end up owning you”, a commentary on Generation X’s obsession with material wealth. Tyler rejects the idea that social values and structure control the individual and so he urges Jack to take control of his life; and Tyler further rejects that ‘wealth, pleasure, or honor make the good life’. He adds “Do what you like”, speaking to existentialist beliefs of free will and choice. When Tyler and Jack create their first Fight Club, it’s an outlet for men to enjoy recreational fighting - a place where they can get away from the stress of their daily lives. In the fights, these men ‘struggle against their individual nature’, literally ‘fighting for life’ at some points. However, we also see the free will of these men in that they choose to go and fight and they choose to continue these violent, aggressive actions.
Similarly, the existentialist notion that “Worldly desire is futile” arises from Tyler Durden's comments on the consumerism of the generation, and how people unnaturally start defining themselves by their material possessions. Who better to exemplify that than Jack? Jack states “Like so many others, I had become a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct” (4:51), but he doesn’t seem to hide it. Instead, he sits on his toilet, looking through the Ikea magazine while making an order on the phone, openly talking about his materialistic nature. Additionally, he asks "what kind of dining set defines me as a person?” (5:22) which shows his constant search for something outside of himself to define him as a person - in this case, it's furniture sets. Here, Fincher through Tyler's comments highlights how people rely on outside forces to represent themselves; and, how people attempt to find themselves (through Ikea furniture) using their own free will and choice.
After threatening to kill Raymond, a convenience store worker who always wanted to be a veterinarian, to prove a point that “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need” (70:30), Jack finally starts to understand Tyler’s motives to abandon 'our want for wealth'. Raymond, who gave in to the idea of 'wealth and pleasure making the good life', abandoned his dreams of becoming a veterinarian to become a convenience store worker instead because it was more practical and would make him more money. Tyler, by threatening to kill him, tries to remind Raymond to follow his veterinary passion. This scene underscores another existentialist belief - “things that are not rational, absurd” - because in trying to teach Raymond a lesson about following one's dreams, Tyler points a gun to his head. What better way to inspire someone then to threaten them with a bullet through their skull? As always, Tyler begins a heroic-like speech, one that yields one of the more popular quotes from the movie:
"You are not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet.” (84:26).
It's ironic: Tyler took Raymond’s wallet, looked through it to identify him and then took his driver’s license and told him he would ‘keep an eye on him’. Even though Tyler tells Jack and upholds the belief that “you are not the contents of your wallet”, by identifying Raymond by the license from his wallet, Tyler shows us that people are truly in fact “the contents of their wallet”.
Finally, David Fincher’s directing adopts the concepts of Freudian psychology of id, ego and superego. Jack is the ego as he suppresses his various desires and works on the reality principle - he understands his life has no meaning and often states “I prayed for a crash, or a mid-air collision. Anything” (21:40). He follows what society expects of him and finds himself a job, follows the laws, and lives a boring, conformist life. Tyler is the id, giving into his pleasures which include having sex with Marla, smoking, and creating a Fight Club where he can beat up some dude for the fun of it to let go of his anger and frustration. The superego appears at various points throughout the movie when Jack tries to prevent Tyler from doing something absurd, such as killing Raymond, or when Tyler tries to remind Jack to live a little. The two are a balance of superego between themselves as well: Jack is his conscience self, while Tyler is his ideal self. Freudian psychology too deals with the ideas of free will and choice and also with the concepts of our experiences, beliefs, and outlooks playing a crucial key in the choices and decisions we make. Because Jack was left by his dad at a young age (like Tyler), he tries to grapple with what it means to be a man in society in this day and age. The hyper-masculinity and absentee father theme is present in Freud’s theory of childhood development and implies that this lack of parental figure will lead to trauma later on, as it seems to do.
Fight Club is in an in-your-face-type movie, yet its true themes and messages hide just beneath the surface, ready to explode. The movie speaks to the conforming and consumerist society we live in today and even more than a decade since its release, especially with the vast growth of social media, its commentary on humanity is perhaps more relevant than ever. Fincher and Palahniuk's creative vision give rise to several more theories that demand to be considered (and several more close replays of the movie): is Marla, much like Tyler, actually an extension of Jack? Well, it's up to you to decide what, or who, you want to believe.