7) Telling The Audience The Truth: Fight Club (1999) and Bronson (2008)
Fight Club does not have the reputation that it does because it is an easy film to follow. Fight Club is a cult classic (it actually took a long time to reach that status, famously polarizing reception when it was first released) precisely because it is a multi-layered, bi-polar, reality altering trip that it can take two, or more, viewings to fully unravel.
The entire movie depends on deceit – “Tyler”’s deceit of the narrator (possibly called Jack, and played by Edward Norton), the narrator’s deceit towards himself, and the narrator and Tyler’s joint deceit of the audience. In one of several places in which the movie breaks the fourth wall with supreme artistic style, this deceit is amplified.
The narrator is introducing Tyler, his lifestyle, habits and character, to the audience – speaking straight into the camera while Tyler carries on in the background. One of Tyler’s jobs, the narrator explains, is to join the reels together on films as they play at the cinema – and we are also informed that Tyler likes to splice alternative (in this case, pornographic) images into those fractions of time between the reels. This should be our first indicator that Tyler is making his way into the movie via another form of projection: As we now know, the narrator is mentally projecting Tyler Durden, without realizing.
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But it is precisely for this reason that one of the other main fourth wall breaks is so effective. The themes of the movie – the idea of having lost the grip on our real selves, instead attaching happiness and fulfilment to what the world of advertising and corporate institutions would have us believe that we want – and the fact that we are experiencing the movie from the narrator’s point of view, indicate that we ourselves are in the narrator’s position. We are also living in an artificial, superficial world. So when Tyler gives the famously powerful speech in which he states that “you are not your job…you are not how much money you have in the bank….you are not the car you drive….you are not the contents of your wallet…” we, the audience, cannot help but personally feel the force of his accusatory tirade.
He finishes by turning straight to the camera: “You are not your f—king khakis…you are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.” At the same time, the camera – the projection – shakes, and the reel becomes visible at the side of the screens. The fictional Tyler is completely in control here, but he is telling us nothing other than the painful truth about our own, real, lives.
Bronson, Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2008 film about notoriously violent British criminal Michael Gordon Peterson, better known as Charles Bronson, is another movie that breaks the fourth wall in order to convey a truth. In this case however, it is literally the truth. This is a biopic – the subject matter is real life events. But despite being based on a true story, Bronson is not by any means a traditional biography.
Charles Bronson himself has always enjoyed a certain degree of celebrity status as the result of his violent behaviour in prison, and of the 120 times he has had to be moved between prisons. He is, many people believe, addicted to this sort of attention and reputation – and it is this very characteristic that Winding Refn utilizes in order for the film to convey that impression.
Using character to camera discourse, and theatrical devices such as a stage, sounds of an off-screen audience, re-enactments of conversations performed entirely by Bronson, and at one point even a mime costume, Winding Refn creates a direct parallel between the on-screen Bronson’s awareness of his audience, and Bronson’s apparent need to be noticed by an audience in real life.
Hardy’s performance of Bronson is also quite literally a ‘performance’ – he is playing Bronson, who ‘plays’ this persona of Bronson. This, and elements such as the stage, elevates the movie straight into the meta-realm, in which the movie remains conscious and reflective of its content, precisely because its content was always conscious of itself.
It is a highly unusual approach to a biopic – and a stroke of absolute directorial genius.