Twenty years ago, David Fincher directed a seminal cinematic masterpiece drenched in existentialism and grime. But three years before Fight Club hit theaters, the story was conceived and published by a diesel mechanic from Portland named Chuck Palahniuk. Though Palahniuk’s own life experiences served as the main inspiration for the story, there was, in fact, another iconic piece of ‘90s art that deeply informed the story, both in its content and its dark tone: Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 album, The Downward Spiral.
The album (which just celebrated its 25th anniversary) was described by bandleader Trent Reznor as an exercise in “honesty and nakedness of emotion,” which “looks at certain vices as being ways of trying to dull the pain of what the person is hiding.” It began, like most great works of art, with an honest reflection and assessment of self, even the dark and horrific parts Reznor would rather not deal with. Though the album would go on to become an iconic piece of rock history, it began as Reznor’s humble attempt to share his humanity with the world, hoping some listeners would relate to the raw emotion it expressed.
Palahniuk happened to be one of those affected listeners. He claimed in a tweet that Fight Club was “mostly written with [Downward Spiral] playing on repeat in the background.” Of course, director David Fincher was also highly influenced by the work of Nine Inch Nails. Before Fight Club, Fincher had used a remix of “Closer” in the opening credits of his film Se7en. The acclaimed director would later work with Reznor and producer Atticus Ross who collaboratively composed the scores for Fincher’s The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. Though this working relationship between Reznor and Fincher has been essential to these films, it’s the indirect connection between The Downward Spiral and Fight Club that remains Nine Inch Nails’ greatest contribution to the world of film.
The album begins, and we’re instantly transported into the mind of a tormented soul as Reznor sings over harsh industrial programming, “I am the voice inside your head/ And I control you.” Though NIN’s protagonist is aware of his conflict with “Mr. Self Destruct” much earlier than Fincher’s protagonist, one can easily picture Tyler Durden’s insomnia-fueled emergence and growing influence when Reznor sings on “The Becoming”, “It’s a part of me/ It’s inside of me/ I’m stuck in this dream/ It’s changing me.”
The worldview of Tyler Durden reflects the unnamed protagonist’s dissatisfaction with big corporations, consumer culture, and materialism, leading to the demolition of his condo in order to escape becoming a “slave to the IKEA nesting instinct.” It’s an ongoing theme of the movie, which later leads to destroying Apple computers, franchise coffee shops, and of course, credit card companies.
On Downward Spiral, “March of the Pigs” foreshadows these events with Reznor calling out society’s greed and superficiality, maniacally responding, “Don’t like the look of it/ Don’t like the taste of it/ Don’t like the smell of it/ I want to watch it come down.”
But before the credit card towers would topple to the ground in the film’s closing scene, the protagonist’s dissatisfaction and numbness to life first leads to self-harm as he beats himself senseless (or gets others to do it for him), sustains a terrible chemical burn, and further abuses himself. These scenes of self-harm are alluded to throughout The Downward Spiral as the narrator blames Mr. Self Destruct for his “perfect ring of scars” on “Ruiner”. The following track, “The Becoming”, continues to paint this violent imagery as Reznor describes, “He’s covered with scabs/ He is broken and sore.” Ultimately, the fighting became an attempt at destructive self-therapy, an attempt to “focus on the pain/ the only thing that’s real.”
Echoes of Marla Singer and the emotionally abusive relationship she endures with the narrator can also be found in Downward Spiral. On his descent into madness, Reznor’s narrator becomes consumed with lustful desire, as can be heard on “Big Man with a Gun”, a song originally intended as a satire of misogyny in gangsta rap at the time. The sexual relationship between the narrator and Marla most clearly parallels “Closer”, as the protagonist shares his most animalistic desires: “You let me violate you/ You let me desecrate you.” The song and film carry an even deeper parallel, however, as Marla represents the only true hope the narrator possesses, a sentiment echoed in the song’s last line: “You are the reason I stay alive.”
Despite the hope for life and relationship found in Marla, the narrator continues to spiral into unbridled narcissism as Tyler Durden/Mr. Self Destruct slowly takes over. In the film, shortly before the narrator realizes he is Tyler, he asks himself, “Had I been going to bed earlier every night? Have I been sleeping later? Has Tyler been in charge longer and longer?” The alter ego had, in fact, become the primary ego with a god complex, turning Fight Club into a full-fledged terrorist operation that reverently obeyed Tyler’s every order.
On “I Do Not Want This”, Reznor expresses a desire for godlike omnipresence akin to Tyler’s franchising of Fight Club/Project Mayhem across the United States, screaming, “I want to know everything/ I want to be everywhere.” It’s an unsettling goal, which Tyler accomplishes through “his perfect kingdom of killing, suffering, and pain,” which “demands devotion, atrocities done in his name” (“Heresy”). As things continue to spiral out from self-harm into horrific violence and terror, the protagonist realizes that he’s losing control of his situation. You can almost hear the narrator confessing to Marla on “The Becoming”: “Even when I’m right with you/ I’m so far away/ I can try to get away/ But I’ve strapped myself in.”
In Fight Club, the narrator finally comes to the realization that he has lost control and that he is Tyler Durden, the terrorist, self-harmer, the emotional abuser — Mr. Self Destruct. This moment is captured on NIN’s “A Warm Place”, an ambient instrumental that offers the story a glimmer of hope. It’s a hope that stems from the protagonist’s ability to be honest with himself, clearly see his troubling actions, and, ultimately, make it right.
In the film, the protagonist attempts to apologize to Marla for his wrongdoing and save her from himself, a scene which can be traced to the chorus of “Reptile”. Though he had abused her with labels like “liar” and “whore,” he’s able to recognize her now as “beautiful” and “precious,” confessing instead, “I am so impure.”
In the climax of the album and film, the protagonist is ultimately unable to reckon with his destructive personality when faced with the pain he has caused. Unable to see any other way out, the protagonist attempts suicide to kill off the parasitic alter ego as described on the title track and in the closing skyscraper scene of the film. However, the protagonist in both cases survives, offering a chance for resurrection and a new life beyond the destruction of the past.
Both Fight Club and The Downward Spiral end semi-ambiguously, however. The former ends with a successful terrorist attack destroying multiple skyscrapers while the protagonist continues to bleed from his gunshot wound. The latter ends with “Hurt”, a song that continues to question “What have I become?” and admits, “I will let you down/ I will make you hurt.” Neither ending is going to fill you with fuzzy feelings. Yet, there’s something deeply human and hopeful in the picture of the protagonist and Marla holding hands as the world crumbles around them. It’s reflected in the outro of “Hurt” where Reznor resolves, “If I could start again/ A million miles away/ I would keep myself/ I would find a way.”
It’s certainly not clear whether either character gets that opportunity for change after the story ends. One could interpret these closing events as an argument that the spiral will always continue and that chaos wins n the end. Indeed, the existential crises, addictions, and cyclical destruction presented in these unapologetically gritty works of art are not easily overcome. However, it does seem clear that both works offer a sliver of light at the end of a long, hard tunnel — a light that can be reached when grasping the hand of someone who cares and is willing to walk through that “very strange time of life” alongside a troubled soul.
I am Jack’s lingering sense of hope.
Buy: Pick up Nine Inch Nails on vinyl here.