The Sixth Sense initiated a series of films problematizing the hero’s very identity.

The grandfather of the modern mindfuck film is Luis Buñuel.

Forerunners confronted the nature of their identity when in crisis. Here, the unnamed hero of The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (La Riviere du Hibou), with a hangman’s noose around his neck, and ...

... Jacob Singer in Jacob’s Ladder.

The Sixth Sense’s shrink hero. Malcolm Crowe, like many mindfuck heroes, faces acute identity confusion because he is self deluded.

Brad Pitt plays a typical David Fincher hero is Se7en, extremely confident and sure of himself....

...But his confidence later fails when confronted by an outside force.

In Fight Club Pitt plays a similarly confident character..

...Pitt’s character gains in power and destructive force because of the hero’s obliviousness to his own identity.

Fight Club: Tyler Durden meets Tyler Durden.

Fight Club: Unnamed through most of the film, Edward Norton plays a marginalized hero who first turns to support groups and self help slogans. He seems to “find himself” when he embarks on a path of destruction.


A beautiful mind(fuck):
Hollywood structures of identity

by Jonathan Eig

It has been more than sixty years since Toto tore the cover off the Wizard of Oz and more than forty since Sam Loomis unmasked Norman Bates. Narrative surprises about the identity of major characters are not new in Hollywood film. But three characteristics distinguish movies like The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Memento, Mulholland Drive, and Donnie Darko from past, more typical, Hollywood identity-surprises.

First, in these films the character with the surprise invariably is the protagonist, as opposed to a supporting character who affects a more “normal” hero. The next two characteristics work in tandem. The hero in question does not know the true nature of his identity and so is not simply keeping a secret from us. And the audience does not know the backstory either. We are not let in on a secret the hero does not know. A sudden boomlet of movies intentionally lie to the audience and manipulate viewers’ emotional investment in the heroes. In critical circles, these movies have developed a trendy name: mindfucks.

The two Davids—Lynch and Fincher—are the modern-day champions of the mindfuck film, but they certainly owe a large debt to Luis Buñuel, who made a career out of yanking the rug out from under his audience. From the avant-garde Un Chien Andalou and the “is it real?” documentary Land Without Bread early in his career, right up until the final shot of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the double female lead in That Obscure Object of Desire, Buñuel played with our perceptions of his characters, simultaneously involving us in fictional lives and reminding us that what we are seeing is flickering light in the image of actors—a representation of a representation.

The current crop of Hollywood mindfucks from 1999-2001 no doubt has been fertilized by several successful “surprise” movies from the recent past. Both Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) and Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1994) boasted Oscar-winning screenplays and significant profits; artistic and financial success mark them as more widely seen than previous cult favorites like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985)and Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990). But the heavy hitter in this recent history is M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999).

The Sixth Sense employs a plot device characteristic of all the recent mindfuck movies. At some point in the first act, after a character’s life is threatened, the story is either interrupted for a flashback to show how we arrived at this point (Fight Club and Memento) or the character appears to survive the threat. In The Sixth Sense, we will come to learn that Malcolm Crowe did not in fact survive, that at least part of his subsequent story has been illusory. That will be the big climactic surprise.

Such a narrative device did not originate with Shyamalan. Modern drama has paid plenty of attention to the nature of man’s life and death, from the mainstream of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to the absurdism of Samuel Becket’s Endgame. Two earlier films employ an identical device: Robert Enrico’s Oscar-winning short La Riviere du Hibou (based on Ambrose Bierce’s story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and initially shown to a large American audience as part of The Twilight Zone1 television show in 1964) as well as Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. But neither led to similarly constructed movies nor did they generate $300 million dollar ticket sales in initial release, as The Sixth Sense did.

The Sixth Sense differs from the other recent mindfucks in having little commentary on social, political, and economic forces affecting us at the end of the 20th century, confining its exploration to its characters’ personal journeys (perhaps a major factor in its extraordinary success.) In the entertainment industry, financial success constitutes an essential step forward in the development of a narrative or aesthetic form. The Sixth Sense opened up public awareness, and consequently Hollywood’s interest, in such constructions.

Another 2001 Hollywood release which certainly merits discussion as a mindfuck, Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others, has been closely linked with The Sixth Sense in critical circles. The Others not only shares the mindfuck device of having a character unaware of the nature of her existence, (in this case Grace Stewart and her two children do not realize that they are dead), but it also shares an utter lack of concern with any social, political, or philosophical explanation for the delusion. Though the characters have superficial discussions of religion, The Others, like The Sixth Sense, has a plot that remains primarily personal. Since its characters do not die on screen, and are, in fact, long dead, the story does not examine the cause of their death. More than any other current mindfuck, The Others is a pure ghost story that employs this popular modern device for dramatic rather than thematic purposes.

Today’s mindfucks differ from those of Buñuel in two key ways. Foremost, the plots are constructed to hide the surprise and rely on misdirection, or in the case of Usual Suspects, outright lying. (It is not simply Verbal Kint who lies in Usual Suspects. Brian Singer, the man behind the camera, lies to us as well when he shows us a shot of coiled ropes behind which we assume Verbal is watching the drama unfold.) For Buñuel, the movie was never about the surprise. It was simply one of the devices he used to tell a story. But today, even in movies like Fight Club and Memento, which elucidate sophisticated social or philosophical points of view, the fact of the surprise is so big as to overwhelm the rest of the viewing experience. You do not have to be a structuralist to see that these movies owe their impact at least as much to the way they are told as to the stories they are telling.

But the most intriguing departure from Buñuel is attitudinal. In the words of David Thomson, Buñuel, despite his reputation for cold misanthropy, remains, “tolerant of human weakness.”2 Buñuel provides us with tender comedy, which is especially evident in his later work but never completely removed from his anti-church films; his work laughs along with piteous but earnest attempts of men to leave a villa, eat a meal, or understand a woman. In contrast, in today’s mindfucks little human compassion or tolerance can be found. Indeed, these films constitute a new version of the theater of cruelty. Thematically, they uniformly reject any social structure’s ability to save us from our delusions. And in stylistically, in their cinematic technique, they seem to understand our desire to participate in the delusion. Our desire to be lied to.

The fundamental distinction between most earlier “surprise” movies and films like Fight Club, Memento, Mulholland Drive, The Sixth Sense, and Donnie Darko lies in the nature of the hero’s identity. Tyler Durden, Leonard Shelby, Diane Selwyn, Malcolm Crowe, and Donnie Darko are all, to some degree, self-deluded. In the forerunners —The Crying Game, Usual Suspects, and especially Fincher’s Se7en and The Game, all of the heroes (and the audience) are surprised to learn the truth about the level of manipulation effected by the other characters. Fergus discovers Dill’s true sexuality. Both Dean Keaton and Dave Kujan are floored by the man they have known as Verbal Kint. In Fincher’s two movies, the respectable heroes’ solid worlds are broken to pieces, quite literally, at the climax. But in each case, the power to delude lies in another’s hands. Each film’s hero in these earlier works may play a key role—often as an enabler for the delusion—but none is the source of the delusion. Things have changed in today’s mindfucks.

Tyler Durden in David Fincher’s Fight Club represents a radical departure from the traditional Fincher hero. In Fincher’s earlier work, David Mills (Se7en) and Nicholas Van Orton (The Game) are successful, competent, aggressive individuals overwhelmed by the surrounding world and each has the confidence to believe that he can put a stop to the “game” that he is playing. Each is decidedly wrong.

Mills faces utter destruction and tragedy when his wife—and unborn child, the hope for the future—is brutally decapitated. Van Orton faces literal destruction as his body plummets through a plate glass ceiling. The fact that he does not die can leave a viewer even more depressed than at the end of Se7en if we realize that Nicholas has acted as a mere pawn, utterly predictable and therefore utterly devoid of free will. Both Mills and Van Orton have their humanity diminished as each is forced to confront the fact that he is powerless.

Not so for Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. He is a character of enormous power, able to bend the will of every man he meets. A visionary leader, he has the intelligence, charisma, and courage to enact his vision. This power, however, comes at the expense of his identity. For though Tyler is all-powerful, Jack (the narrator) remains largely powerless unless he is following Tyler’s instructions. And Jack is powerless throughout most of the movie in the most personal matter—he does not know himself. Jack does not know that he is in fact Tyler.

In one sense, the ending of Fight Club is far more optimistic than the ending of Se7en or of The Game for it allows Jack to destroy Tyler, thereby attaining a level of power and control that he has never consciously known. But considering the immense psychic and physical cost, it seems a Pyrrhic victory at best. When Jack first learns the truth about his identity, he is not impressed or seduced by what he has accomplished but is terrified, which would be the logical reaction upon discovering your perception of your own identity has been horribly flawed. But at the climax, Jack achieves a rationality in the use of his newly-discovered power. Jack doesn’t outfight Tyler, because he cannot. He outwills him.

We do not know whether Jack will die from the self-inflicted gunshot wound he suffers at the climax, but it is clear that Tyler is dead. This fight Jack might win. The final shot—Jack with arm around girlfriend, watching a spectacular display of fireworks—constitutes, to borrow Judith Butler’s phrase, “an ironic hopefulness.”3 The “irony” derives from Tyler/Jack’s bleeding from a potentially fatal gunshot wound to his head, and the “fireworks” coming from the multiple high rises he and his fascist group have blown up. Still, coming from a director known for his pessimism about our ability to control our environment, Fight Club surprisingly represents one of the more optimistic of the modern mindfucks.

That optimism in destruction ends up presciently foreshadowing at least one element of the events surrounding September 11th, 2001. As citizens of the United States struggled to understand how the loss of thousands of innocent lives could be celebrated in some circles of the Muslim world, the explanation offered by commentators and celebrants alike was that the shroud of powerlessness had been lifted when the towers came down. Fight Club sanitizes this issue by – rather unrealistically – destroying only property, and not taking innocent human life. But its essential point – that if men are not accorded at least some measure of control over their destinies, they will lash out violently, and in the view of the ruling class, immorally, at their perceived oppressors – appears most timely.

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