A film review by Craig J. Koban

 
 

 
 
 

 
 

RANK: # 2

 

AMERICAN PSYCHO jjjj

5th Anniversary Retrospective Review

2000, No MPAA rating, 116 mins.

 

Patrick Bateman: Chistian Bale / Donald Kimball: Willem Dafoe / Paul Allen: Jared Leto / Evelyn: Reese Witherspoon / Courtney: Samantha Mathis / Jean: Chloe Sevigny /


Film directed by Mary Harron /  Written by Harron and Guinevere Turner

27-year-old Patrick Bateman seems to live the typical and perfect yuppie existence that any commodities broker would in late 1980's Manhattan. 

He lives in a fabulous and tastefully minimalist penthouse apartment (American Gardens Building on West 81st Street on the 11th floor, to be precise) with all of the proper fixings: modern art, fashionable furniture, and a great stereo system.  He’s into contemporary music, especially the work of Phil Collins (‘Invisible Touch’ was an “epic meditation on intangibility,” he feels) and Huey Lewis and the News (their album 'Sport' has “a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism”). 

He has a beautiful girlfriend (well, girlfriends would be more apt) and enjoys going out to swinging nightclubs and the type of restaurants that require reservations months in advance.  He’s exceptionally well tailored, in perfect physical condition (he can do 1000 crunches everyday) and loves business cards, ones with raised lettering and  bone in color (basically white).  When asked about his job, he says, matter of frankly, that he’s into “murders and executions,” to which people take as a droll little bit of self-reverential humor. 

Well, he wasn't kidding.  Patrick is also a chainsaw and axe-carrying serial killer.  

Or is he?.

No film, outside of perhaps Oliver Stone’s WALL STREET, captures so effortlessly the sort of prevailing “me-first, all others last” mentality of the commercially excessive 1980’s as much as Mary Harron’s AMERICAN PSYCHO.  That it also manages to be about a serial killer almost seems kind of perfunctory.  The film is populated, even outside of its main character, with many amoral and narcissistic men that are willing to do anything to climb the corporate ladder in their dog-eat-dog world.  AMERICAN PSYCHO, like Stone’s earlier film, works much in the way of being the ultimate and perverted expose of male vanity gone completely amok.  Both films place the late 80’s business lifestyle in a sort of tainted and surreal light…maybe almost sickening in their devotion.  After AMERICAN PSYCHO is over you're left kind of puzzled and wonder what was worse: the terrible and despicable murders or the absolute arrogance of the businessmen and their own warped demeanor and sense of ethics? 

The businessmen in the film are sort of presented with a level of attention to particular details that make the terms “anal-retentive” carry new meaning.  There is one scene in particular that's indicative towards demonstrating the sense of textbook narcissism that the average 80’s male executive most likely had.  In it a series of colleagues exchange business cards, but it's not one of the polite and innocuous conversations about cards, but rather a serious, exhaustive, and nearly fetishistic examination of what makes their cards so unique.  Absolutely everything is discussed, from paper density, to thickness, to type of lettering, to even paper color and embossing.  This moment is a masterstroke for director Harron as she encapsulates the whole prevailing vibe of the film.  These arrogant men discuss their business cards and revel over one another’s in a sort of bizarre, almost sexual manner.  When one man’s card is clearly (in their eyes at least) superior to another, it's like one's penis is bigger than everyone else’s in the room.  When Patrick Bateman looks at what he feels is a flawless card, he sort of nearly reaches a moment of sexual climax.   

Okay, the scene also plays out as wonderfully funny.  In reality, every businessman’s card is fairly identical and could not be too noticeably different from the others in the pack.  The point here is that these men notice the differences, and it's just a step in a journey towards a series of rivalries between these spoiled young twentysomethings to be the best, most successful, and most important.  These men are materialistic gladiators with one another, battling out who has the finest suit, glasses, haircut, and, yes, business card.  Yet, despite all of their abilities to one up one another, these yuppies are essentially faceless drones in a greedy, acquisitive time.  Superficially, they all really look identical (one of the running gags in the film is that Patrick Bateman continually gets mistaken for another office man with a similar haircut and suit fetish).  Ostensibly, these men are motivated by being as self-important as they can be, which is perpetuated by their greed for money, which subsequently affords them the opportunity to have everything that they need to feel important.  Ironically, though, all of their riches make them too much alike and not as important as they want to appear.  The problem with Bateman is that he lets his ego fuel his passions to another level, namely the execution of women, or at one crucial point, a man. 

In retrospect, it’s amazing that a film version of AMERICAN PSYCHO was even made in the first place, especially considering if one is even vaguely familiar with the source material.  Based on the incredibly controversial bestseller of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, the book detailed the life of Wall Street’s Bateman, who loves the sort of designer lifestyle that he describes (in the first person) in so much excruciating and twisted detail.  Pages upon pages were devoted to the right facial cream and after shave baum to use for the proper effect.  Yet, the book's style is crucial to amplifying the cruel image of Bateman: that of a snob so into his own looks, appearance, and lifestyle that discussing the elegance of a business card provides a more meaningful emotional response than, say, the murder of an arbitrary and defenseless man at his hands.  Therein lies the horror and prevailing commentary of the novel: The author made it very clear that there was no apparent motive behind the killer’s actions, which makes them all the more shocking.  This is helped by the first person narration where Bateman goes into enormous detail about the dreadful murders themselves.  Killing for him is about as impersonal as looking through a department store catalogue.  As a social satire, commentary, and investigation of the modern 1980’s male self-image, there’s no denying the novel's power.

Considering the book’s insanely violent imagery and frankness, it really is a miracle that the film even got the greenlight.  Just as the book bounced around from publisher to publisher, the film also laid around lethargically for someone to pick it up.  It was initially snared up by Oliver Stone, who planned on making it with a then young Leonardo DiCaprio.  Considering his previous satiric film, NATURAL BORN KILLERS, his version of PSYCHO would have been most interesting, not to mention that it would have made for an effective one-two lampooning punch if the films were paired together on his resume.  Yet, it was ultimately a female director – Harron – that eventually got the rights to the book and made her own film about the self-centeredness of the corporate, all-American male with, ironically, a Brit named Christian Bale, who many may remember as the young POW in Steven Spielberg’s EMPIRE OF THE SUN.  

Casting Bale proved to be one of the more virtuoso choices of its time.  Harron's inspired selection of Bale effectively helped to establish her own equally compelling take on the source material.  Perhaps in a male director’s hands a more congenial sense of being impressed with the figure of Bateman might have resulted, albeit in sick and abnormal ways.  Yet, in Harron’s eyes she doesn't put Bateman up on a pedestal of hero worship, but rather, more or less, sees him as another lone and faceless figure being eaten up and spit out by that consumer driven money machine of the 1980’s.  Bateman in the film is really no different than all of his other colleagues in the sense that he takes great pains to conform to the type of insatiable and gluttonous existence that he feels he has to inhabit to feel empowered and significant.  Yet, the only small, but crucial difference between Bateman and his fellow Wall Street friends is in his appetite for murder, which even he does not have an appealing manner of referring to.  He understands, secretly at least, that he has a hollow existence: “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable... I simply am not there."

That is the ultimate genius of Harron’s interpretation of the underlying material here:  She doesn't see Bateman as the typical male sociopath right out of a slasher flick.  Rather, she points out to us that Bateman is just another in a long line of spoiled young men that populate an 80’s culture dominated by gluttony and self-righteousness, further driven by inner drives and compulsions.  Yes, Bateman likes restaurants that serve up $500/plate meals.  Yes, Bateman believes that the only way to wear boldly patterned shirts is with a solid or discreetly textured tie.  Yes, he has a terrific penchant for Valentino suits and glasses by Oliver Peoples.  Yes, he uses deep pore cleansing lotion in the morning followed by honey almond body scrub, and on the face an exfoliating gel scrub which is capped off by an herb-mint facial mask that he leaves on for 10 minutes and then finishes by using a non-alcoholic after shave.  Yes, Patrick Bateman is the embodiment of everything that is vile and excruciatingly pompous about the rich male persona of the time.  He just likes to kill people…a lot of people.  I guess, in simple ways, he just acts out his desires more than a normal person would. 

The film is absolutely ghastly, to be sure, but it also has a way of tantalizing the audience into thinking whether or not Bateman’s actions are real, unreal, imagined, etc..  The ending of the film, without spoiling anything, begs the audience to look back at the events that proceeded it and view them through a different filter.  However, the manner in which the murders happen and whether they are real or not is beside the point; the Bateman's killings help to illustrate one important notion – most of his colleagues are hell-bent on destroying lives in the more conventional and corporate sense, but Bateman goes further and destroys actual lives until the body count becomes so high that even he can’t keep track.  Think of Bateman as a strange and warped metaphor of road rage: When his will is frustrated and things don’t go his way, he indiscriminately kills the person that conflicts with his own sensibilities or even a person that just has the bad luck of being within eye contact. 

AMERICAN PSYCHO  is also enormously funny, despite its appalling mayhem.  The most integral aspect to the film’s humor is in the inspired performance by Bale himself.  He doesn't overplay the role to help elevate the laughs or satire.  Instead, he plays the part as straight as possible, which only helps to accentuate the pathos and intended humorous overtones of some of the scenes and dialogue.  His delivery is so dead on that when he pontificates on the meaningful things he prays for (like ending apartheid and the nuclear arms race, stopping terrorism and world hunger, and providing food and shelter for the homeless) it's hard not to incredulously chuckle.  There are even more moments in the film that inspire huge laughs.  After he has chillingly murdered a colleague, he goes over to the victim's apartment and makes a startling discovery: "There's a moment of sheer panic when I realize that his apartment overlooks the park... and is obviously more expensive than mine.”  There also those inspired moments when he dishes out on the virtues of 1980’s pop music (the film’s more creepy and cruelly funny scenes involves him playing famous pop music as almost a precursor form of foreplay to sex and murder).  Even as he engages in wicked three-way sex with two prostitutes in a particularly infamous scene, the moment plays off more uproariously hysterical than sensual, maybe because he poses and looks at himself in a nearby mirror while with the women and angrily tells them to “always look at the video camera!”  I guess, in hindsight, Bateman is sort of “likeable” in the same light that Hannibal Lector is appreciated: Bateman jumps right into deplorable behavior without even the pretence of thought.  His malevolence is almost kind of gleefully instinctual without a care in the world for repercussions.   

Five years after its initial release (it appeared in both an R rated and unrated version theatrically) AMERICAN PSYCHO remains a wholly original 1980’s satire of greed, compulsion, and frustrated and wounded male ego.  It’s a scathing social commentary on the way consumerism and wealth corrupt young men; in this way, it's the blackest of black comedies in showing how these excesses debase a man so much that becoming a murderer is a somewhat natural by-product.  AMERICAN PSYCHO is as smart as it is funny and is as challenging and thoughtful as it is gruesome and vile.  Not many films can brag about being side-splittingly comedic and inhumanly pungent.  AMERICAN PSYCHO achieves this peculiar dichotomy and goes even further until it establishes itself as a film of daring, inventive, and compelling watchability. 

Not only that, but you’ll never listen to “Land of Confusion”, “In Too Deep”, and “Sussudio” with the same carefree spirit again.

  H O M E