Be forewarned. This is a film chest-deep in violence. It begins with a man pointing a gun into another's mouth, and it ends with the bombing of a skyline of urban office buildings. In between, you'll see a lot of young men bashing in each other's faces as blood freely flows all over the place.

Americans are used to covering up the nation's defects as much as possible. When some unfortunate tendency surfaces with tragic results, as in the school shootings, we look to teams of experts interviewed on the media to explain the problem and suggest how we might remedy it. Fight Club spits in the face of all such grand projects of self-improvement and national justification. This fast-paced, clever, and visually stunning drama reveals the shadow side of America — one that is impervious to moral bromides and easy answers.

The screenplay by Jim Uhls, based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, is chock full of witty and cynical takes on self-examination, the New Age, Martha Stewart, mail order catalogs, law and order, and sexual politics. Here corporate culture and consumerism are identified as the excesses that give rise to the darker side of the American personality.

The narrator of this mesmerizing film is played with spooky intensity by Edward Norton. He has an odious job as a recall coordinator for a major automobile company. When he tries to get some relief for his insomnia, his doctor suggests that to really feel pain, he should attend a group for victims of testicular cancer. The narrator soon becomes addicted to a variety of support groups. For the first time in his life, he gets in touch with his emotions and cries freely. However, Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), another tourist in the land of genuine suffering, spoils this therapeutic release for him by holding up a mirror to his dishonesty.

The narrator's life is radically changed when he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a very mysterious fellow who is a philosophical nihilist. His various jobs comprise a concerted attack on corporate America. Durden makes soap out of human fat retrieved from liposuction clinics and sells it to posh department stores; the enterprise is actually a cover for making nitroglycerin for bombs. While moonlighting as a projectionist, he splices momentary pornographic images into family films. Working as a waiter, he urinates into the soup of unsuspecting customers. He lives in a boarded-up abandoned house on the outskirts of town, a place where nobody would think to look for anybody. The narrator moves in with him.

Before long these two alienated young men have found a new outlet for their pent-up anger-all-out bare knuckle fist fighting. They establish Fight Club, after-hours gatherings of men who share their pleasure in masochistic pain. The secret movement spreads until there are clubs all over the country. These then evolve into guerilla war units in a project Durden calls "Mayhem." Through various acts of violence and vandalism, their goal is the downfall of corporate America. Because business-as-usual only benefits the rich and the powerful, these frustrated and unfulfilled men are determined to level the playing field-literally. Their devil-may-care love of violence is more evidence of the shadow in America.

Director David Fincher (Alien 3, Seven, The Game) has made a very unsettling movie filled with indelible images of urban anomie, brutality, and male camaraderie. The discontent depicted here eventually turns into a form of fascism. But then the narrator has an epiphany. He realizes that all dualism is an invidious lie leading to an endless confrontation between us and them. He recognizes his own shadow side and sees the real consequences of what he is doing. He even tries to take responsibility for what he has done.

Only trouble is the destructive forces he has set into motion cannot be stopped. Individual enlightenment is meaningless unless it somehow enriches the lives of others. A genuine and lasting transformation has to contribute to the healing of the larger community. Fight Club is a brilliant and thought-provoking film that is bound to generate a firestorm of controversy. Unfortunately, the finale shows the filmmaker stumbling into the truth about the shadow in American life and not knowing what to do with it.