Friday Film Focus: American Psycho

Before American Psycho came out, 28 years ago, it was already the most controversial novel of the ’90s. Its vivid depictions of the gruesome murders of women, men, children and animals preceded wherever it went. Everyone hated the book — especially those who never read it.

In 1991, the execs at Simon & Schuster looked at a manuscript by Bret Easton Ellis about Patrick Bateman — a Wall Street stud into designer labels and mutilation — and decided to breach their contract to publish. Ellis kept his $300,000 advance, made a new deal, and watched the world slime him as if he had committed the murders. Ellis, who thought he’d written a social satire about the moral bankruptcy of the Reagan era, was vilified as a literary Hannibal Lecter. No wonder it took nearly a decade for someone to make a movie version of American Psycho. How lucky we were that the ‘someone’ is the Canadian-born, Oxford-educated Mary Harron.

It’s just as well a woman directed this film. She’s transformed a novel about blood lust into a movie about men’s vanity. A male director might have thought Patrick Bateman, the “hero” of the film, was a serial killer because of psychological twists. However, Harron sees him as a guy who’s prey to the usual male drives and compulsions. Harron, the rock journalist and documentarian who made a striking feature debut in 1996 with I Shot Andy Warhol, responded to the satiric rather than the slasher elements of the novel.

Harron is less impressed by the vile Patrick Bateman than a male director might have been, perhaps because as a woman who directs movies, she deals every day with guys who resemble Bateman in all but his body count. At the heart of the film is a superb performance by a young Christian Bale(adopting a pseudo-preppy American accent). His portrayal softens the novel’s portrait of a serial-killing Wall Street hotshot just enough to force us to identify with this ultimate narcissist.

Bale’s presentation of 27-year-old Patrick Bateman — a budding master of the universe by day (he works in mergers and acquisitions’) and homicidal maniac by night — is alternately funny, bloodcurdling and pathetic. Harron senses the linkage between the time Bateman spends in the morning. Bateman lovingly applies male facial products. He also blasts away people who annoy him, anger him or simply have the misfortune to be within his field of view. He is a narcissist driven by ego, and fueled by greed.

Patrick and his broker pals spend major bucks on suits, ties, shoes and grooming products (only to look exactly the same). They carry on grim rivalries expressed in clothes, offices, salaries and being able to get good tables in important restaurants. It is their uneasy secret that they make enough money to afford to look important, but are not very important. One of the film’s best jokes is how these pathetic males often fail to recognize one another. Letting a friend stand out with something as simple as a better business card, and Patrick goes nuts. He takes an ax to an associate, Paul Allen (Jared Leto), then uses Paul’s apartment as a place to bring two hookers. Paul’s closets come in handy to store body parts; The heads Patrick likes to keep in the fridge.

One minute, Mr. Bale’s Patrick is a cowering corporate geek and self-described empty shell. The next, an arrogant wimp unable to distinguish reality from fantasy. As this character metamorphoses, Mr. Bale makes us feel the underlying connections between these multiple personalities. But he’s a serial killer, or at least he is in his imagination. The movie plays with the notion that his violent spasms are merely the revenge fantasies of a repressed corporate toady. From the opening credits, in which drops of blood are confused with red berry sauce drizzled on a plate, the movie establishes its insidious balance of humor and gore.

“I like to dissect girls,” Patrick tells his buddies over drinks. No one listens or cares, not even the detective (Willem Dafoe) who can’t stay focused on Patrick’s homicidal urges. Harron has called the film “feminist.” She brings much human dimension to Ellis’ characters (notably the women). Seymour, a British actress, invests the terrified hooker with surprising strength.

Reese Witherspoon (as Patrick’s clever fiancé) and Samantha Mathis (as his junkie mistress) play women who don’t define themselves through men. Chloe Sevigny is also outstanding as Jean, the smitten assistant who knows her boss is keeping dark secrets. Harron also sees Bateman in a clear, sharp, satiric light. She utterly despises him. Christian Bale is heroic in the way he allows the character to leap joyfully into despicable behavior. There is no instinct for self-preservation here, and that is a mark of a fantastic actor. Whenever Harron digs beneath the glitzy surface in search of feelings that haven’t been desensitized, the horrific and hilarious American Psycho can still strike a raw nerve almost a decade later.

Image Source: Paul Drinkwater/NBC via USA TODAY Network/Pool Photo

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