Of the two current films in which buttoned-down businessmen rebel against middle-class notions of masculinity, David Fincher's savage ''Fight Club'' is by far the more visionary and disturbing. Where ''American Beauty'' hinges on the subversive allure of a rose-covered blond cheerleader, Mr. Fincher has something a good deal tougher in mind. The director of ''Seven'' and ''The Game'' for the first time finds subject matter audacious enough to suit his lightning-fast visual sophistication, and puts that style to stunningly effective use. Lurid sensationalism and computer gamesmanship left this filmmaker's earlier work looking hollow and manipulative. But the sardonic, testosterone-fueled science fiction of ''Fight Club'' touches a raw nerve.
In a film as strange and single-mindedly conceived as ''Eyes Wide Shut,'' Mr. Fincher's angry, diffidently witty ideas about contemporary manhood unfold. As based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk (and deftly written by Jim Uhls), it builds a huge, phantasmagorical structure around the search for lost masculine authority, and attempts to psychoanalyze an entire society in the process. Complete with an even bigger narrative whammy than the one that ends ''The Sixth Sense,'' this film twists and turns in ways that only add up fully on the way out of the theater and might just require another viewing. Mr. Fincher uses his huge arsenal of tricks to bury little hints at what this story is really about.
''Fight Club'' has two central figures, the milquetoast narrator played by Edward Norton and his charismatic, raging crony played by Brad Pitt. The narrator has been driven to the edge of his sanity by a dull white-collar job, an empty fondness for material things (''I'd flip through catalogues and wonder what kind of dining set defined me as a person'') and the utter absence of anything to make him feel alive. Tormented by insomnia, he finds his only relief in going to meetings of 12-step support groups, where he can at least cry. The film hurtles along so smoothly that its meaningfully bizarre touches, like Meat Loaf Aday as a testicular cancer patient with very large breasts, aren't jarring at all.
The narrator finds a fellow 12-step addict in Marla, played with witchy sensuality by Helena Bonham Carter and described by the script as ''the little scratch on the roof of your mouth that would heal if only you could stop tonguing it -- but you can't.'' As that suggests, Marla's grunge recklessness makes a big impression on the film's narrator, and can mostly be blamed for setting the story in motion. Soon after meeting her he is on an airplane, craving any sensation but antiseptic boredom, and he meets Mr. Pitt's Tyler Durden in the next seat. Surveying the bourgeois wimp he nicknames Ikea Boy, Tyler asks all the hard questions. Like: ''Why do guys like you and I know what a duvet is?''
Mr. Norton, drawn into Tyler's spell, soon forsakes his tidy ways and moves into the abandoned wreck that is ground central for Tyler. Then Tyler teaches his new roommate to fight in a nearby parking lot. The tacitly homoerotic bouts between these two men become addictive (as does sex with Marla), and their fight group expands into a secret society, all of which the film presents with the curious matter-of-factness of a dream. Somehow nobody gets hurt badly, but the fights leave frustrated, otherwise emasculated men with secret badges of not-quite-honor.
''Fight Club'' watches this form of escapism morph into something much more dangerous. Tyler somehow builds a bridge from the anti-materialist rhetoric of the 1960's (''It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything'') into the kind of paramilitary dream project that Ayn Rand might have admired. The group's rigorous training and subversive agenda are as deeply disturbing to Mr. Norton's mild-mannered character as Tyler's original wild streak was thrilling. But even when acts of terrorism are in the offing, he can't seem to tear himself away.
Like Kevin Smith's ''Dogma,'' ''Fight Club'' sounds offensive from afar. If watched sufficiently mindlessly, it might be mistaken for a dangerous endorsement of totalitarian tactics and super-violent nihilism in an all-out assault on society. But this is a much less gruesome film than ''Seven'' and a notably more serious one. It means to explore the lure of violence in an even more dangerously regimented, dehumanized culture. That's a hard thing to illustrate this powerfully without, so to speak, stepping on a few toes.
In an expertly shot and edited film spiked with clever computer-generated surprises, Mr. Fincher also benefits, of course, from marquee appeal. The teamwork of Mr. Norton and Mr. Pitt is as provocative and complex as it's meant to be. Mr. Norton, an ingenious actor, is once again trickier than he looks. Mr. Pitt struts through the film with rekindled brio and a visceral sense of purpose. He's right at home in a movie that warns against worshiping false idols.