The film opens inside the narrator’s mind...literally. Although we do not come to know the narrator’s real name, the film’s script refers to him as Jack (played by Edward Norton). We move through Jack’s mind following nerve impulses and emerging out of his mind to find him, battered and bruised, with a gun in his mouth. The gun is held by Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt). Jack’s voice-over tells us that he and Tyler are seated in an office high-rise to watch several other tall office buildings be detonated and crumble to the ground. Jack says that all of this has something to do with a girl named Marla Singer (played by Helena Bonham-Carter).
The film cuts to Jack as his head is pulled into a hug between the large breasts of a man named Bob. Jack says that Bob has “bitch tits.” Jack is at a support group meeting for men with testicular cancer. Bob is on hormone replacement and his body is manufacturing estrogen to balance the high levels of testosterone he is receiving, hence his breasts. Bob holds Jack, crying. “We’re still men,” he says.
Jack’s voice-over states that he needs to back up further in the storyline. Now we see him in his apartment, lying in bed, wide awake. He hasn’t been able to sleep for six months. He has insomnia and because of this is “never really awake or really asleep.” Jack’s boss comes by with papers for him and drops them off with instructions curtly. We can barely hear any of the words his boss says.
Jack sits on his toilet, flipping through a Swedish furniture catalog called “Furni,” clearly a parody of Ikea. “Like so many I had become a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct,” he says. The pages of the catalog come alive as Jack passes through them, walking through the photo layouts as if they were real rooms. He is on hold on the phone ordering “clever” furniture, explaining that when he saw something like a little table in the shape of a yin yang, he had to have it. He laments that he used to read pornography, “but now it was the Horchow collection.”
Jack sits in a hospital talking to a doctor regarding his insomnia. The doctor is less than moved by his tale of woe. Jack claims he is sleepwalking and waking up in strange places without any idea of how he got there. He begs the doctor to give him anything to help him sleep. The doctor says no, advising him to chew some Valerian root and get more exercise. Jack pleads again, saying he is in pain. The doctor replies, “You wanna see pain? Go to First Methodist on Tuesday nights. See the guys with testicular cancer. That’s pain.”
The next scene is a Tuesday night at First Methodist Church. Jack enters a room full of men and takes a seat in the support circle, wearing a name tag with the name “Cornelius.” A middle-aged man shares a painful story of how his ex-wife has left him, remarried, and is now expecting a child. He breaks down crying while telling the story. The group leader instructs the men to break into pairs. Jack is clearly unprepared for this. A large man extends his hand out to Jack. It’s Bob. Jack is pulled in by Bob forcibly. Though a large man, Bob is actually quite gentle and sensitive. He explains to Jack that he used to be a habitual user of steroids and now his own children don’t speak to him anymore. Bob begins to sob and cry. Finally, he pulls Jack at arms length, reads his name tag and says, “Go ahead...Cornelius. You cry.” Jack shakes his head nervously but as Bob pulls him into a hug, Jack lets go and begins to cry leaving a wet stain on Bob’s face. He is a bit embarrassed but feels so much better.
The film moves back to an overhead shot of Jack fast asleep in bed. “Babies don’t sleep this well,” he says in voiceover. He has found a cure for his insomnia.
A close-up on Jack’s face as he looks over a bulletin board with postings for other support groups. Jack has become addicted. He looks around quickly and tears the sheet of paper down and leaves. A montage sequence begins as Jack goes from one support group meeting to another, pretending to be afflicted with cancer, tuberculosis, brain tumors and other terrible afflictions. He craves the genuine outpouring of emotion he finds. Suddenly, he feels important, like people are listening to him and actually care about him. He is seated in a church pew at a meeting for cancer survivors. The group leader invites everyone to close their eyes and “open their heart chakras” before “entering their cave” and finding their “power animal.” Jack imagines himself in an ice cave. He moves through it carefully before he encounters his power animal: a penguin. It waddles up to him and says, “Slide.” It then slides away on the ice.
Jack is becoming accustomed to this life. The next scene finds him nestled, hugging Bob at the “Remaining Men Together” testicular cancer survivor support group. The distinctive sound of high heels clicking on the ground disturbs him from his bliss. A woman dressed all in black and smoking a cigarette enters the room and asks, “This is cancer, right?” This is Marla Singer. Marla attends the meeting, even though she is a woman and is soon popping up at all of Jack’s meetings. Jack is incensed. Marla’s lie reflects his own and because of that he is no longer able to cry. Because he can’t cry, Jack can no longer sleep. Jack fantasizes about grabbing Marla during a meeting and telling her off.
The film opens with a fairly unconventional narrative. As we meet Jack we have little information as to what is happening or who Tyler is, or why he would be holding a gun in Jack's mouth. Regardless, this type of opening grabs our attention and instantly invests us in what is happening because we want to understand what we are seeing.
Jack's voice-over throughout the film serves as both a guide to the narrative, as most voice-overs do, but also as a point of levity to balance out the dark images the film presents. Without the voice-over, Fincher has stated, the film would be far more depressing and disturbing to watch.
As Jack begins to set up the backstory we come to understand that Jack has been plagued with insomnia for six months. He moves through life in a sort of daze in which he is neither awake nor asleep. One can interpret this to also mean that Jack is like a zombie, not really dead or alive. He is numb in his existence. His job provides him no joy and he doesn't seem to have any friends or other outlets to improve the quality of his life. He is plagued by a loneliness that he counteracts by shopping and engaging in a consumer lifestyle.
When we see Jack at home for the first time he is flipping through a Swedish furniture catalog and ordering pieces over the phone. This scene sets up one of the major themes of the film: the emptiness of our consumer culture. Jack looks for stripe patterns and sofa units that "define him as a person." Of course, Jack cannot really hope to find happiness in this, but he does find a welcome distraction. As Jack flips through the pages of the catalog they come alive and he "enters" the model rooms as pieces of furniture appear around him, complete with price tags. This particularly inspired visual effects sequence places Jack inside the advertisements themselves, driving another point: Jack isn't merely shopping for products, he is one, or more specifically, he is trying to live a life that he has seen in advertising, and it isn't make him happy. Jack comments that he used to look at pornography but now obsesses over the Horchow collection, a furniture and home decor retailer. Pornography is presented as an almost innocent rite of passage, lost to his youth. Now, he worries more about status and the projection of wealth.
When Jack goes to the see the doctor regarding his insomnia he gets little sympathy. Norton's performance in this scene depicts Jack as more sad and whiny than troubled. The doctor seems to recognize that Jack needs to change his life rather than just pop some sleeping pills. When Jack claims that he's in pain the doctor counters by telling him to go see a group of men with testicular cancer. "That's pain," he says. Fincher inserts a single frame image of Tyler in this scene. in the film's commentary, Fincher explains that Jack is beginning to create the character of Tyler, who he will become. Flashes of Tyler appear in future scenes as well.
Jack takes the doctor's advice and attends the support group meeting, though he uses a pseudonym on his name tag. Here, he meets Bob and is finally able to cry and let go. Crying allows Jack to accept the simple fact that he's sad. He can't deny it to himself when tears are streaming down his face. It also allows him to see that it's alright that he feels this way. Jack has reached a certain acceptance about how he feels. Having let go of these negative emotions, he is able to sleep at night again, though nothing has fundamentally changed in his life. Jack becomes addicted to support group meetings and begins attending them every night of the week, always using a different pseudonym while pretending to be afflicted with whatever terrible disease is appropriate to that meeting.
Consider the implications of Jack's deception of the members of the support groups as the novel progresses. Even though he is searching for human contact, he is also exploiting the members of these groups to earn a certain status. Though that status is largely more about acceptance, it is no less a manipulation. Compare and contrast this with Tyler Durden's interactions with Jack and members of fight club as the film progresses.
While we may feel sympathy for Jack because he has told us so much about how he feels about his life, there is also the sense that he is not confronting his deeper issues. The support groups are a band-aid for him. They provide enough relief for him to be content, but not happy. Jack makes no mention of looking for a new job or trying to find a direction in his life in some way. No one forces him to buy the items he does. While he may be a "slave to the Ikea nesting instinct," Jack makes no effort to free himself from it. He simply stews, becomes angry, and fraudulently attends these support group meetings. While the others are actually suffering from their afflictions, Jack uses these opportunities to have people listen to his problems. When Marla Singer begins attending the same meetings, committing the very same dishonest act that Jack is, he is offended. He calls her a "faker," and "a tourist" when he is no different. Jack sees himself in Marla and cannot accept it. Marla demonstrates that Jack's problems are still out there, that he has simply been hiding from them in these group meetings. Because of that, his insomnia returns.