Cover Story

The blood, sweat & fears of "Fight Club"

With their bloody buddy picture, "Fight Club," Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and bleak-chic director David Fincher get ready to rumble

''First rule of Fight Club: You do not talk about Fight Club. Second rule of Fight Club: You do not talk about Fight Club.'' -- Tyler Durden in Fight Club

First rule of interviewing David Fincher: talk all you want about Fight Club. Ask him anything that pops into your head about his new $65 million film starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter. About its unrelenting violence. Its murky morality. Its provocative politics (which one outraged critic has already denounced as ''fascist''). Go ahead, ask. He won't hit you.

''This is the part of the interview where you ask who the hell do I think I am and what the hell do I think I'm doing,'' correctly observes the 37-year-old director of what could turn out to be the most controversial release from a major studio since Natural Born Killers. ''But, you know, I honestly don't get what the big deal is. I've always thought people would think the film was funny. It's supposed to be satire. A dark comedy. I think it's funny. But I dunno,'' he goes on, stumbling onto an epiphany, ''maybe I have a different take on funny.''

Oh, he has a different take all right, and not just on funny. As one of the most subversive mainstream filmmakers in Hollywood — the man who made moral ambiguity and psychological dubiety into a marketable cinematic style with his 1995 serial-killer thriller Seven and his 1997 Michael Douglas mind trip The Game — you can always count on Fincher for different.

Still, even by his sublimely warped standards, Fight Club is a shocker, a film so harrowingly brutal and unabashedly out there it makes that elephant-dung art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art look about as disturbing as a big-eyed Walter Keane pixie. Norton (American History X, The People vs. Larry Flynt) plays the movie's insomniac narrator, a corporate drone alienated by his cookie-cutter job and consumerist lifestyle; his only true joy is crashing support group meetings for the terminally ill. Pitt (who's done Fincher's bleak brand of ''comedy'' before, starring in Seven) plays his newfound pal Tyler Durden, a mysterious (and none-too-hygienic) soap salesman who helps Norton's character get in touch with his inner anarchist. Together, they start a support group of their own — Fight Club — where disillusioned men from all walks of life learn to work through their pain and find emotional insight by beating each other's heads into bloody pulps.

''There's something about getting hit in the face that gives you an adrenalized version of life that's very profound,'' Fincher says as he relaxes in the sunroom of the Los Feliz, Calif., rental where he's spent the last few months putting a postproduction polish on his film. ''It's like nothing else you experience in life.''

There's more. Like a story line about a cabal of anti-IKEA terrorists scheming to bring down the evil home-furnishings empire (and other oppressors, like Starbucks and Calvin Klein) by sabotaging corporate art and blowing up office towers; a sadistic love triangle involving Bonham Carter (Wings of the Dove) as a suicidal Goth goddess named Marla (who's wearing what looks like Marilyn Manson's eye shadow); and a surprise ending so shocking (and complicated) we'd have trouble revealing it even if we wanted to. And all of it unspools in a synapse-frying rush of flashbacks, jump cuts, and stylish special effects that hang together more like a Mobius strip than a motion picture. There's even not-quite-subliminal footage of X-rated body parts, though perhaps subliminal inch-age describes some of the inserts better.

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