Ending Explained is a recurring column in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we consider the ending of the cult classic Fight Club. Yes, prepare for spoilers.
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 have gotten rid of his rebellious alter-ego.
After he fires the gun, The Narrator’s kinda-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.
Indeed, Tyler’s doctrine is the opposite of The Narrator’s in the first quarter of Fight Club. Where The Narrator believes control will make him happy, Tyler knows that abandoning control will ultimately set him free. So if Tyler has helped The Narrator find the true meaning of life, why does he kill him?
The moment that The Narrator realizes that he is Tyler and Tyler is him is the moment he no longer needs him. The Narrator now knows that he is capable of things he never thought he would be capable of: burning down his own apartment, getting people to care about what he has to say, and, above all, fighting for his own life. Perhaps he needed a cool alter ego to achieve those things, but what matters is, right before the credits roll, he realizes it is him that is capable of them, not Tyler.
The way he gets rid of Tyler is also a significant element of Fight Club’s ending. Indeed, it goes without saying at this point that Tyler isn’t actually real. Fincher drops hints of this fact throughout the film: The Narrator repeats, “I know this because Tyler knows this,” for example, or he and Tyler had the same briefcase, or the two of them paying one single bus fare; the list goes on and on. Given this, The Narrator didn’t need to physically kill him. But he does so by sticking a gun in his mouth because he knows that, like Tyler always taught him, he needs to do something dramatic to take control of his own destiny, and if he didn’t get rid of Tyler in such a brash way, then his sidekick’s lessons would have been for naught.
It is also worth noting that The Narrator has a very real brush with death in this scene. But this fact just makes Tyler’s teachings ring that much more true. You have to want to fight for your life, and sometimes it takes a brush with death to realize how important it is to you. The Narrator seems to go into the scene thinking that because Tyler is him, the only way to kill Tyler is to kill himself. But it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that he moved his hand at the last minute because he realized he finally doesn’t actually want to die.
Not only does The Narrator realize that life is important to him in the last moments of Fight Club, but he realizes that love is, too. Indeed, it was “Tyler” that was sleeping with Marla throughout the film, but in the final frame, The Narrator grabs her hand. He gets the girl, and they watch fireworks out the window. How’s that for a fairytale ending?
It is important to note here that Fight Club didn’t originally have a happy ending. In Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 book that the film was adapted from, The Narrator ends up in a mental institution while members of Project Mayhem carry out various destructive missions, waiting for Tyler to come back. The film’s optimistic twist suggests that fighting for your life is always worthwhile (but please don’t break the law to do it).
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.