'The first rule of Fight Club: You do not talk about Fight Club. Second rule of Fight Club: You do not talk about Fight Club.' Such is the warning that scruffy Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) issues to a troubled man known only as The Narrator (Edward Norton) in Fight Club, director David Fincher's imaginative, exhilarating, politically edged film that is likely to divide movie audiences as to whether it's a knockout or a split decision.

At first glance, The Narrator-we never do learn his name, although we visit his inner self, or do we?-doesn't have that much in common with Tyler, a brash, rough-house type who claims to be in the soap business, but moonlights as a film projectionist, taking delight in splicing X-rated images into movies (pay attention and you'll catch his handiwork in this movie, not once but twice). But The Narrator has problems. In the opening minutes of Fight Club, he is introduced to us with a gun barrel in his mouth, but a flashback to an earlier time makes things clearer. Or does it? The first rule of Fight Club, the movie, seems to be: 'Not everything is what it seems.'

Fight Club is a buddy movie with an asterisk. There's something not quite real about the way The Narrator's apartment blows up, destroying most of his worldly possessions, and how he wanders through an unnamed city, encountering Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), a wry terminal-illness leech, at a meeting of testicular-cancer victims. Soon, Marla is bedding down with Tyler, and The Narrator is becoming more morose. Meanwhile, Tyler's brutal philosophy is starting to attract hordes of violent men eager to enlist in a militia-styled underground.

But for what cause? Tyler is a self-styled anarchist, with echoes of Marx and Nietzsche, but his rants against consumerism-he quickly sizes up The Narrator, dubbing him 'IKEA Boy'-aren't exactly novel. But they are enough to shake The Narrator's faith in what's going on. 'Is Tyler my nightmare or am I his?' he wonders, with little hope of ever finding the answer. As for Tyler, he just presses ahead-isn't that what a leader does?-raiding a liposuction clinic, blowing up corporate art, killing a friend in the process. At times, Fight Club aspires to be subversive, but Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography can bounce between gritty and lavishly beautiful on a dime.

Fight Club's three main actors are working at the top of their game. Pitt, looking muscular, scuzzy and genuinely dangerous, inhabits Tyler so completely, you wonder if he'll discard this role that easily. Norton, coming off his career-defining performance in American History X, digs right down into his character's insides and is never more astonishing than when he literally beats himself to a bloody pulp in front of his astonished boss. Bonham Carter echoes her garish character in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein just long enough to deconstruct her before our eyes.

It's not every day that Hollywood serves up a genuinely disturbing and provocative movie sure to offend a healthy portion of its audience, but this is just such a movie. But, for all its ambiguities and excesses, Fight Club is nonetheless a stunning achievement, sure to be one of the most talked-about movies of the year. It's actually about something-true, it may remind some of bullshit sessions in the dorm at college-but formulaic and predictable it is decidedly not. Fincher's movie continually respects and challenges its audience's hopes and preconceptions, both with visuals and ideas, and just might stir up some quarrels in the parking lot.

--Ed Kelleher