American Psycho

American Psycho

You're one scary individual, Christian Bale

dir: Mary Harron


The book that no-one thought could (or should) be made into a film finally has been, and thank the lords above that uber-hack Oliver Stone or pretty boy Leonardo “Credibility” DiCaprio, both initially rumoured to be interested, were not involved in this particular production. Whether it is a successful film and / or adaptation depends on three factors, only two of which depend on your opinion of the book. If someone is an overwhelming fan of the book, apart from possibly requiring anti-psychotic medication, it is quite likely that they will like the film, as the dialogue and the lack of plot are taken verbatim from the book.

The film is a very faithful, some might say almost timid adaptation of the book. Anyone hating the book obviously is a moron for watching the film expecting anything different. The most damning condemnation of the film that I’ve heard was simply that the film is boring, with no point, and an unpleasant way to waste 2 hours. It’s hard to disagree with that kind of logic.

The most horrific excesses of the book are effectively excised, and thankfully so, more due to the fact that even in the book alone the sheer catalogue of repetitive murder and torture simply becomes tedious rather than shocking. Apart from that, the fact remains many of those occasions are unfilmable in a non- snuff, non-X rated film. I am referring to sequences involving decapitated heads carried around on engorged genitalia, pipes, rats, and the human body, child murder, nailgunning, et bloody cetera. After a while it holds all the mystery and inventiveness of a casual perusal of your local phone book. The film avoids the same trap by having a sparing use of gratuitous violence except in those non-key scenes designed to show how much of a psychopath our protagonist, Patrick Bateman, truly is.

Our hero is young, handsome, intelligent, wealthy, and a worthwhile member of society with a large social circle of people unremarkably identical to himself. Except for the fact that he seems to have a tremendous appreciation for random acts of senseless brutality and the wholesale butchery of large numbers of clueless people, predominately women. The film is somehow ambiguous as to whether these constant exercises in murder actually occur, or whether they are confined only to his demented imagination. It is arguable either way, but certain elements from the book are used to establish this in the film, taking on a different significance than was initially intended.

Bateman speaks to us at film’s beginning, telling us that he is simply “not there”. He sees himself as a shell, a cipher, incapable of feeling or expressing a single genuine emotion. He seems to fit in perfectly on a social level, but has a constant awareness that he does not really exist to any more fundamental a level than his physical appearance. We are intended to see his murderous intentions as an expression of this complete lack of a soul, beyond morality or any other considerations, reaching to fill the abyss inside with some sensation from torturing and murdering others.

The film, and the book to a certain extent, have been said to be a “biting” social satire upon the Manhattan elite, the lives of the oblivious privileged, and the selfishness of the Reagan era during the 1980’s. Others see Bret Easton Ellis’ first foray into such brutal prose as an attempt at Marquis De Sade type immortality, for writing material so horrific and shocking that he cannot help but remain in the public consciousness long after this film ceases being watched by alcoholics and angry loners on video. The truth of the matter is that Ellis is no more the Marquis De Sade any moreso than Quentin Tarantino is Piero Paolo Pasolini. Anyone still in the dark as to what I mean, or who think I am trying to mimic Camille Paglia by using such gratuitous name-drop cross-referencing, is that neither the book nor the film genuinely have anything more valid to say about society or murder than the writing on the side of a condom wrapper does.

The film has virtually no plot, being more of a compilation of scenes that don’t even rate being called vignettes, that link to the previous scenes, yet proceed nowhere. That is not the fault of the film, nor is it the criticism that it seems to be. There is no real story to get involved in. What we have is a character, appropriately played by Christian Bale, who is beyond vain, who interacts very superficially with the people around him, has sex with some people, kills some people, has a minor breakdown, and talks like a bad Rolling Stone review (redundant, I know) about some of the worst pop music of the 80’s, usually in situations juxtaposing how bizarre his behaviour truly is by discussing things of such banality whilst using that patented politician/car salesman/newsreader’s voice. None of the people around him suspect the killer that lurks within, not because he hides it so well, but because they are so vague, stupid or self obsessed. And there isn't a sense of progression, of an escalating fervor or movement towards a climax, there is only a meandering, predictable limbo.

One initial theory I had regarding one of the overall points of the story has to do with hypocrisy. Both the main character’s hypocrisy and that of society ensure that moreso than their blindness, it is their own inability to admit that one of their best and brightest could possibly be capable of such monstrosity that allows Patrick Bateman’s rampages to go unnoticed or unpunished. This seems less credible the more I analyse what little there is to the movie. Since the film implies that Bateman’s perception of reality is impaired (when using a teller machine a message flashes up saying “Feed me a stray cat”, which he promptly attempts to do), we are led to believe at film’s end that most likely the murders occurred only within his own head.

If that be true then the hypocrisy argument becomes spurious, and the closest cogent intent I can come up with from the point of view of the filmmakers is that yuppies are bad and that wealth turns people into self-obsessed loons who eventually become so disaffected and alienated from their own emotions that they end up wanting to kill people. As much of a reach as that may seem, the film can’t really be classified as an in-depth look into the mind of a serial killer, this is no Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, or even Silence of the Lambs crossed with Wall Street. The murders here simply occur.

Bateman seems to kill the Paul Allen (Owen) character because he has a better business card. He seems to torture and kill prostitutes for no other reason than that he can. But if you take it to be all fantasy (as evidenced by the use of the London sightings of the Paul Allen character in the movie, used in such a way as to imply that he is still alive, whereas the book used it solely as another example of the homogeneity of his social group), then it signifies nothing.

There is no satirical lampooning of Reaganomics or of greed. There is just a guy, who prefers watching himself in the mirror instead of his sexual partners whilst having sex, who is very vain, bored, lonely, who dreams of murder because of a fundamental lack of personality. We get to travel with him on his journey nowhere, as he watches television, mumbles insincere remarks, fantasises about murder and believes it to be true, and basically does nothing that memorable or meaningful.

One of the final scenes has a shot of Patrick Bateman sitting at a table, with a sign on the door behind him saying “This Is Not An Exit”. We sense that for him there will be no respite from this self-made purgatory. Thankfully for the members of the audience, there are at least three exits and a ready escape from the ennui onscreen.

Reese Witherspoon plays the role of Evelyn, Bateman’s fiancé, who appears in approximately three scenes. She is pointless except as an example of how self-centred an individual (woman) can be. Samantha Mathis play the role of Courtney, a woman barely able to stay awake or upright due to her constant use of Lithium or Librium or some other prescription drug. Her role is as thankless as Witherspoon’s, with as much screen time.

Willem Dafoe is decent yet has two seconds of onscreen time with which to show more personality than any other character. Chloe Sevigny is in the role of Jean, his secretary, who is meant to be “frumpy” and “poor” in comparison to the other characters, yet despite the fact that the actor herself has the permanent look of a drowned kitten that eats Special K by the handful (and I don’t mean the cereal), she comes off looking more attractiveand being more credible than any of the other female characters. She also comes across as the only genuine character in the whole film. The rest exist merely as props, some as scenery, some as furniture, but none get anywhere near enough time to be anything more than the shallowest of characterisations that they truly are. It is all Bateman, all the time, as focused as the book is on his perennial self-obsession, yet even then what slight depth to his character existed in the novel, hinting or alluding to significant events or factors which lead to the creation of such a monster, is abandoned by the wayside.

I find it hard to see how the story could be referred to as having been “transformed” into a feminist treatise in the hands of the director Mary Harron. It is hard to see that Bateman’s actions are those of a man acting out territorial pissings or the frustrated masculine will venting itself in its bloodiest catharsis. His actions, dependent on the situation, are either too planned or otherwise maniacal for there to be any doubt. To be able to extrapolate from the premise that he represents the male ego within corporate culture, we would have to believe that he needs or desires to belong to a society that he simultaneously wishes to dominate and fit in to. We know the appearance of such matters pathologically to him, but certainly not the reality. With each murderous outburst he pushes himself further and further away from any conception of humanity, and deeper into his own blank psychopathy. But then again, maybe that was the point.

Despite my many complaints the film exists as a more succinct version of the book, and works as a film, overall. It is next to impossible to say “I liked it” about a film of this nature, but it some ways it is a wry and amusing look at American culture, and at one man’s existential angst (or lack thereof). It is certainly not the incisive expose on the psychology of either the wealthy or the deeply disturbed, which is one and the same thing, I guess. I’ve seen better films dealing with both topics, but this film modestly achieved its goals by making “art” out of the charnel house, the corporate office and the back seat of the limousine. It definitely didn't shock me, stun me with horror, or provoke a thought more complex in my head than "I can't believe how many times I read the book back in 1991". That Bret Easton Ellis, the book's author, has since come out as gay, as a weird kind of conservative white lives matter kind of jerk should really have come as no surprise to anyone that read this book.

The only other thing I found quite interesting was the fact that the audience was made up of guys on their own, and women in pairs. There were honestly no other combinations, which is more thought provoking than the film. It taught me no historical lesson, nor did it provide me with any broader social commentaries that I didn’t already know: “Yuppies are horrible people”, “Some people are not really what they seem to be, regardless or because of their social position”, and most importantly, “People are stupid”. Please, stop preaching to the choir, next you’ll be telling me that the sky is blue, sex is sweet and whisky is the nectar of the gods.

6 dead yuppies out of 10

“I have to return some video tapes” – Patrick Bateman, American Psycho.