American Psycho. 2000. Directed by Mary Harron. Screenplay by Harron & Guinevere Turner, based on the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis.
Starring Christian Bale, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Bill Sage, Chloë Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, Matt Ross, Jared Leto, Willem Dafoe, Cara Seymour, Guinevere Turner, Stephen Bogaert, Monika Meier, & Reg E. Cathey. Am Psycho Productions/Edward R.
Pressman Film/Lions Gate Films.
Rated R. 102 minutes.
The director of I Shot Andy Warhol, as well as episodes of excellent television shows like Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz – Mary Harron – takes on Bret Easton Ellis’ most well-known and definitely most controversial novel: American Psycho. What I find interesting is that this novel has been lambasted for being too horrific, disturbing, as well as having a hot streak of misogyny running through it. And yet here is a proud woman director, who before and after did very female-centric projects, taking upon herself the heavy duty of giving Ellis a big screen adaptation. And it’s because so many seem to misunderstand the original novel, Ellis’ own intentions. While it definitely serves up a nice heap of horror, American Psycho is mainly an allegory about the murderous rampage of empty-headed capitalism and those it sweeps up in its hideous wave of destruction.
The main character Patrick Bateman is an enigma. At the same time he is beyond predictable. He is a man who wants to be better than everyone else while simultaneously hoping to be just like everyone else. Thus the reasoning for such a title, nationalizing the phenomenon of psychosis here, as Bateman represents the perfect microcosm of psychosis involved in the American Dream. While the movie alludes further than the novel to what Bateman experiences as possibly all part of his own delusions, there is still a ton of visceral horror here with all that psychological madness. In a place where the hallucinatory and the corporeal meet lies American Psycho, ready to confuse, terrify, and pull out a few dark chuckles here or there.
People are more concerned with appearance than anything concrete everywhere you turn in this film. When Bateman supposedly drags a corpse out to a taxi, an acquaintance sees him, but pays no mind to what might be in the bag Patrick is dragging – he only wants to know where he got the fabulous overnight bag. Hilariously, Patrick replies “Jean Paul Gaultier” before heading off. Frequently new business cards destroy the souls of those with their same old cards still kicking around from last printing; this is perhaps the epitome of consumerism evident throughout the film. Another funny moment is when Patrick and Evelyn (Witherspoon) are at a restaurant together later – he’s breaking things off with her, actually admitting to mass murder, and she is too busy checking out a friend’s watch across the room admiring its quality. The screenplay is peppered with these bits everywhere along the way, making not only Patrick a victim of 1980s Wall Street consumer culture, but also everyone in his world, as well.
But above all else there are many little clues and hints along the way that the events of American Psycho – the serial killings – are all a product of the protagonist(/antagonist?)’s rotten mind. He becomes an unreliable narrator to the entire experience. For instance, as Patrick drags his supposed overnight bag out through the apartment building a streak of blood follows behind, staining the floor everywhere – yet the doorman only shakes his head, and a shot from outside of Patrick leaving the building shows there’s no blood anywhere to be found. Of course, as the film wears on these instances are more frequent and also much more noticeable. It’s very likely Patrick is dreaming up/fantasizing about these murders especially once we see him running naked, covered in blood, brandishing a running chainsaw through the halls of his apartment complex. Nobody heard any of that? Not likely. Because as opposed to Leatherface, of whom Patrick is a fan (he works out while watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Patrick does his hunting not on the backwoods rural roads of small town U.S.A, but rather in the heart of the urban jungle that is Manhattan. So he doesn’t have a lot of privacy, certainly not to do these types of things. That’s a large reason of why the novel and the film are both excellent in their own rights, the lines between reality and hallucination, fantasy and the truth, are blurred to the point of black and white distinctions no longer being even remotely possible. Bateman and these Wall Street types life in the grey zone anyways, so it’s no surprise Patrick heading off the deep end puts him in another morally grey zone to boot.
It’s many of the little things which make Patrick an unsettling man. The intersection of horror and sex in his life is more than disturbing. Essentially, aside from the thrill of making money – which then is even further down the ladder than appearing powerful/wealthy – a man such as Bateman is left with only the thrill of sex and murder to satisfy his deepest urges. Then there’s the fact just about the only thing Patrick can discuss at any length is either music or anything else pop culture related. He’s so unoriginal and devoid of any personality or true wit that his only go-to excuse for people is “I have to return some videotapes.” Moreover, he only relates to any real, true emotion through music, whether it’s Whitney Houston or Huey Lewis. Everything he is comes through a construct: music, his apartment, his clothes, his business card and suit and tie. Further than that, Patrick’s identity almost becomes this fluid state simply because he is often mistaken for somebody else. A man at a building’s reception desk calls him Mr. Smith. He’s mistaken for Paul Allen, too. Later on he gets mistaken for someone named Davis. In this light, you can see his ‘killing’ of Paul Allen as a way for him to kill off that identity in order to make room for his own; a plea, a cry for recognition.
Of most importance is Patrick’s narcissism. We see the narcissistic ideals of these Wall Street guys, fawning over business cards, ties, dinner reservations, so on. They’re all about status. It’s all about being the center of attention, and in turn the center of that economic stratosphere in a hierarchy of financial crooks. So what better way to gain attention and be the center of a circus than to go on a serial killing rampage? Even better if it’s all in his head.
Christian Bale breaks through the often sickening (though awesomely intriguing) subject matter to make Patrick Bateman into a complex serial killer; one that Bret Easton Ellis created then Mary Harron and writing partner Guinevere Turner expanded upon in this masterpiece of an adaptation. It isn’t for everybody. Then again, the novel wasn’t either. And maybe I’m biased, because as much as I find Ellis slightly obnoxious as a personality, his writing is often emotionally shattering and downright remarkable. Love the novel, love the film. Harron does a nice job with directing, making the Ellis novel somehow palatable and at the same time horrific as you’d imagine. It took forever to get this to the screen after a ton of pre-production nightmares, so obviously Harron was the one able to get things in the proper place as director. Using Bale’s charismatic and terrifying performance Harron crafts this Ellis adaptation into 102 minutes of pure madness, ending on an ambiguous, unsettling note.
Because whether Patrick killed those people is ultimately futile – we have no idea where he’ll go, what he’ll do after these final moments. Will he take what he’s learned from hallucinating those murders, if that’s the case, and get better at being a serial killer? Has this basically been the pregame warm-up to his big spectacle? We don’t know. And not knowing is the scariest part.