starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Jopsh Lucas, Samantha Mathis, Matt Ross, Bill Sage and Chloe Sevigny
written by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner
directed by Mary Harron
Adapted from the novel of the same title by American enfant terrible Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho stars Christian Bale, whom you might remember as the little boy caught in wartime Shanghaiin Steven Spielberg’s The Empire of the Sun. I remember when the novel was published (and I read it) about ten years ago. It caused an uproar among American women’s groups because of the violence against women hat it portrays. With that in mind it is interesting that the screenplay adaptation was written by two women, and the director is a woman.
Set in the yuppie Wall Street capitalist environment of Ronald Reagan’s America (1980s) the film features a psychotic murderer, 27-year-old Patrick Bateman, who is so completely conventional and unremarkable that he is able to indulge his taste for gruesome murder (usually of women) without being caught, even when he strait-out confesses it to his friends and fiancée.
I like to dissect women. You know I’m utterly insane?
This is a tour of the dark side of the human soul. Everyone has a dark potential but most of us control ourselves within the bounds of family and civil society. Patrick Bateman loses control of himself in sudden, violent outbursts that remind me of Japanese salarymen fighting on the crowded trains in Tokyo. Japanese appear very patient amid stressful conditions. But when they go berserk and lose control of themselves they do it big time. So does the American psychopath.
Patrick Bateman works on Wall Street. What else could better symbolize the Reagan years? Saturated with money, sex, and cocaine he and his peers are the very definition of greed and self-centeredness. I do not mean selfishness. Their concern with their selves goes way beyond mere selfishness into the turbid world of true, topsy-turvy amorality.
Witness the focus put on everyday household goods. These are the things that some might say define us as people. What kind of shampoo we use; what breakfast cereal we eat; what kind of mattress we sleep on; what videos we prefer; what magazines we read. Woody Allen can make a great psychological comedy about the minutiae of everyday life by playing on the absurdity of it. But in American Psycho Patrick Bateman’s obsessions about these everyday things are intended to show us his madness.
One of my favorite lines in the film comes near the beginning. Patrick is narrating the movie as his own tow-hour story. It is a confession that he hopes will somehow provide both amoral catharsis and a new existential foundation for his existence. Starting with his morning shower he tries to introduce himself, but he cannot do it apart from talking about the toiletries he uses. “I use a deep pore cleanser lotion. In the shower I use a water-activated gel cleanser. Then a honey-almond body scrub, and on the face an exfoliating gel scrub. Then I apply an herb-mint facial mask ... I always use an aftershave lotion with little or no alcohol because alcohol dries your face out and makes you look older. Then a moisturizer. Then an anti-aging eye balm followed by final-moisturizing protective lotion. There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, but there is no real me.”
Later, he said, “I have all the characteristics of a human being: flesh, blood, skin, hair. But not a single, clear identifiable emotion except for greed and disgust.” You see what happens to the children of divorced parents?
This kind of writing that supplies us with long exotic and ridiculous lists of goods isn’t unique. It permeates the novel as well as the movie. Bateman and all of his colleagues are obsessed with money and with the high-priced trophy lifestyle it can buy, cluttered with elite, pampering name brand products of all description. You can’t even imagine until you read the book or see the film.
I have all the characteristics of a human being: flesh, blood, skin, hair. But not a single, clear, identifiable emotion except for greed and disgust.
In the novel Patrick appears like a fairly normal, albeit self-centered young adult until about half-way through the book. I remember reading it and thinking to myself, “When does the murdering begin?” But mid-way through the book the killing begins quite suddenly and with little preparation. Patrick is walking home, and then suddenly crouches down in the street to violently stab a homeless man to death for no reason. In the movie it is similar, although the killing starts sooner because it is only a 120-minute movie. Fortunately, the film is not nearly as grotesque as the novel which describes scenes, not just of murder and violent murder, but of dissection. It would have to be that way if the producer and director wanted the film to be shown and to make money, don’t you think?
After Patrick kills Paul Allen, a male colleague of his, because he is jealous of the superior appearance of the other man’s business cards, he confesses to his fiancée over dinner n a restaurant, “I like to dissect girls. Do you know I’m utterly insane?” But she doesn’t pay any attention, as if he hadn’t spoken. To some extent I think Patrick is trapped in madness by his peers. His friends will not allow him to escape because they are even madder than he is (although not violent).
Patrick name-drops famous American serial killers just to test the effect: people like Ted Bundy (electrocuted by the State of Florida, he preyed on university women in the 1970s), and Ed Geins (a 1950s killer from the American mid-west, he was the real-life serial killer who was the model for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. He died in prison in the late-1960s of health reasons.) Nobody recognizes the manes. (I recognized them.)
It is kind of cute that whenever Patrick finds himself in a situation that he wants to get out of but can’t he uses the excuse, “I have to return some videotapes” and scurries away. In the 1980s, of course, the home-rental market was invented and just taking off, so when the book was published this might have been a novel excuse.
Do you think it is unlikely that an otherwise completely normal man would turn out to be a psychopath? Not at all. In fact, it is precisely because they seem completely normal that they find space to engage in this kind of deviance. So often, after some citizen goes berserk, neighbors are interviewed saying, “He was such a nice and quiet man. He helped clear away my snow last winter. He always says hello.” While this might be, in part, an unconscious effort by shocked people to distance themselves from horror, it also speaks some truth about our human nature. As a further example consider the serial killer and cannibal from Chicago, Jeffrey Dahmer (murdered by fellow inmates in prison a few years ago). He preyed on young me. But he was so ordinary and believable in his explanation of himself that Chicagopolice actually returned to his apartment a young man who escaped with a tale of attempted murder. It is a famous faux pas in recent American crime prevention. Apparently the Chicago Police thought the situation was nothing more than two gays giving a spat and they declined to get involved in what they thought was a domestic dispute. Now that is psychotic.