A cut above
It's quite possible American Psycho is a brilliant movie. It's also quite possible that it's a dreary, obvious chop-'em-up dressed in Alan Flusser suits and Ralph Lauren boxers, drenched in Pour Hommes aftershave, all to disguise it as bracing satire on the greed-is-good '80s. The option one chooses to accept (and, more likely, it's the former) depends upon how one reads Mary Harron's adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' 1991 novel -- the one no publishing house would touch nine years ago, until Vintage Contemporaries picked it up and hurled it at readers (the shit hits the fans, indeed). That ruckus took place forever ago. We'd almost forgotten about those scenes in which narrator Patrick Bateman cuts off the lips of still-alive hookers, then gnaws, slowly, on the remains of the dead and barely living. For starters. After all, we've not yet mentioned batteries, rats, and microwaves. There is no need.
Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner have excised much of the book's gore; it's felt now, not seen, except in one smorgasbord scene during which a soon-to-be victim stumbles across bloody corpse after bloody corpse. For that, they've been lauded by those who have seen the film on the festival circuit -- as though merely gutting the book of its wretched excess has somehow redeemed it. Now, the film is being hailed as caustic spoof, a one-fingered salute to the era of Reaganomics and preppy-handbook scum. Surely, that was Ellis' original intention (one lost beneath the bloodbath), but simply eviscerating the book doesn't make its original intention any more clear. American Psycho could be set in 1987, 1997, or the day after the day after tomorrow. It's not as though Patrick Bateman is a product of his calendar; he doesn't disappear at the stroke of midnight.
He existed then, he exists now, he exists forever -- the serial killer hiding beneath the calm, clean-shaven visage of the upwardly mobile man whose medicine cabinet is filled with nothing but the finest in skin-care products. Before his name was Pat Bateman, it was Ted Bundy; before that, Ed Gein. Set the movie whenever you like -- in the glass-and-concrete castles of Wall Street or in the rural nowhere of Wisconsin. American Psycho is no parody, no lampoon -- no more than, say, The Silence of the Lambs was a "put-on." Sure, there are "funny" moments, those scenes that elicit charcoal laughs -- especially one during which Bateman (Christian Bale) and his colleagues (all of whom look like members of the Wall Street: The Musical touring company) try to outdo one another with their business cards, comparing fonts and paper stock and watermarks. This is how they measure their dicks in the ivory towers of commerce; shame upon the poor bastard who chose to go with Franklin Gothic.
But when viewed in the right light (say, in the reflection of the ax with which Bateman kills one colleague, Paul Allen, played by Jared Leto), the movie is an ethereal, creepy, almost breathtaking meditation on the life of a mind snapped in two. You see, it's very possible that the murders we see on screen -- and there are perhaps a dozen, almost all of which take place just out of our view -- do not occur at all, at least not in any tangible "reality." Yes, Bateman commits them...but, quite possibly, in his own mind. He fantasizes about drinking blood, gnawing on bone, ventilating friends and lovers with nail guns and steel dildos. But he does none of these things, because he is too weak to kill. He's too much of a nothing, a replaceable nobody. Not even his closest friends recognize him; not even his lawyer knows what the hell he looks like. And how can a ghost, a transparent apparition who floats through this world insubstantial and unknown, kill anything? In fact, he will leave no imprint upon society whatsoever.
Patrick knows how insignificant he is, how he is nothing but surface and sham. "There is no real me," he says in voiceover early on, while peeling a mud masque from his face (the film can be so on-the-nose). "There is only an entity, something illusory." Bale delivers this monologue through gritted teeth in a too perfect American accent: You know no one who speaks so clearly, so cleanly. A little while later, he tells us he wants only one thing: "to fit in." And he does, sort of: He has a perky little girlfriend, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), who wants only to be married; he has a mistress (Samantha Mathis), who is engaged to one of his colleagues; he has a handful of friends (or, more accurately, people with whom he dines); and he has an assistant, Jean (Chloe Sevigny), who adores him to a fault. He has, on the surface, all the trappings of success. He is rich, and, like his stark designer apartment, he is utterly empty.
But Bateman is also the ultimate shlub. He uses words like "doofus" and "tumbling dickweed" to describe his enemies. He bebops around his office with headphones on, grooving to Katrina and the Waves' saccharine hit "Walking on Sunshine." He doesn't even earn his wealth, since his is a cushy job bequeathed upon him by his old man. Patrick contributes nothing but sucks up everything -- gourmet meals, shitty cocaine, Evelyn's misguided affection. He is utterly, unapologetically useless, a man in search of only one thing in life: good reservations.
But to be a serial killer, a psychopath who hacks up business associates, beats the shit out of hookers, and keeps the heads of models in his freezer next to the yogurt, well, that's being a Somebody. And so Patrick convinces himself he is crazy, a victim of his own bloodlust: "Something horrible is happening inside me, and I don't know why," he narrates, trying to sell us (and himself) on the idea. "I think my mask of sanity is about to slip." But does it really? Are these horrible things we see on screen really going on, or are they merely products of his lunatic, desperate imagination?
Harron, rather brilliantly, never quite lets on, though even the film's opening moment hints at the dreaminess (yes, the fantasy) of it all. What we think are red drops of blood pouring down in front of a white backdrop are nothing but rivulets of dessert toppings, trappings of a gourmet meal. We can believe nothing we see, nothing we hear after that. Patrick speaks out loud, screams threats to those who treat him like a shadow ("Bitch, I want to stab you to death and play around in your blood!" he shouts to a bartender), but no one hears him. He is crazy, yes, but also a coward -- so much so, he spares the life of one woman whom he could kill with such ease. Not even his lawyer believes him when he confesses to two dozen killings; not even the cop (Willem Dafoe) investigating the disappearance of Paul Allen can conceive of Bateman committing any crime, much less murder. He's the ultimate pop-culture product, an amalgam of porn videotapes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But you can't kill with a Blockbuster card.
Bale plays Patrick as though he is made from chiseled concrete and corrugated cardboard. He's beautiful and anonymous, a perfect body propping up an empty head. Patrick explains he searches only for "catharsis," but when he finds none, he implodes; the man is a walking mass of nerve endings, looking only for a shot of Novocain to ease his pain. If we are to assume these murders have not even taken place, then Bale even manages to render Patrick as an almost sympathetic character -- a sad man who has lost some part of himself and wishes only to somehow re-connect. Perhaps he really does have feelings (compassion? love?) for the dowdy, lonely Jean. But he has no idea how to show them to her -- save, perhaps, for shooting her skull full of nails. Or, at the very least, imagining it.
American Psycho. Directed by Mary Harron. Written by Harron and Guinevere Turner. Starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, and Jared Leto. Opens Friday.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.