American Psycho (review)

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Bonfire of the Inanities

(Best of 2000)

[minor spoilers]

American Psycho opens with Hitchcockian strings warp-warping as sticky red blood drips down a white screen… or is it blood? This touch of black whimsy isn’t the only one to be found here, but it does serve to warn the viewer that this is not going to be your standard serial-killer-on-Wall Street flick.

I suspect that New York City in the 1980s — like Paris just before the French Revolution — is going to be an historical period that the future will look back on with horrified awe and a hint of envy, just at the sheer, blatant decadence of it. It’s already happening, in fact, and American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Portrait of a Lady) may well turn out to be the era’s Marie Antoinette, even if he is fictional, the symbol of everything that was reprehensible about the time. And like Marie, Patrick is his own worst enemy.
Patrick runs with a gang of spoiled, racist frat boys with money to burn, the kind of guys who were bringing the stock market to its knees. Their gang colors are grays, with a bit of red around the suspenders, and instead of comparing guns they show off business cards with embossed-gold lettering to their envious peers. Appearances are everything, from where they eat to where they live to their clothes and even to the condition of their skin — we’re treated to a long, almost hilariously pornographic look at Patrick’s involved morning ablutions: the moisturizers, the gels, the creams, the facial masks. Patrick is the first to admit how shallow he is: “There is no real me… I simply am not there.”

And it’s the hollowness of this life that is slowly driving Patrick crazy — one way or another. “I like to dissect girls,” Patrick says cheerfully to a colleague. “Did you know I’m utterly insane?” His friend takes this completely in stride, which begs the question: Is Patrick’s hobby of serial murder, as well as his public declarations of said, all in his lunatic imagination, or is 80s materialism being satirized even further with the suggestion that, frankly, everyone else is too wrapped up in themselves to care?

American Psycho works either way, thanks to a clever adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel by Guinevere Turner (who also appears in the film, in a small role) and director Mary Harron. But I find the “it’s all in his head” interpretation so much more satisfying. Viewed this way, American Psycho becomes, like last year’s Fight Club, a satire on how male aggression so often turns in on itself… and also disturbingly funny commentary on male sexuality.

Though many people took offense, back when Ellis’s novel was first written, at what they perceived to be the misogynist tendencies of its central character, the Patrick Bateman of the film certainly seems to direct a lot more anger toward men than he does women. Patrick is constantly mistaken for another guy who works mergers and acquisitions (or, as Patrick likes to call his line of work, “murders and executions”) by Paul Allen (Jared Leto: The Thin Red Line), and Patrick’s ire is raised higher and higher by suggestions that Paul’s apartment is nicer than his, by Paul’s casual lies about getting a last-minute reservation at a hot restaurant, by Paul’s fancier business card — in short, by the fact that Paul is shallower and even more materialistic than Patrick. Can Paul be long for this world?

There are other forces at work in Patrick’s mind, though, I think. Though he is horrified, as any “real” man would be, by a sudden homosexual overture, I can’t help but wonder if his labeling of Paul as a “closet homosexual” involves more than a bit of projection. (The firm Patrick works for is called Pierce and Pierce — take from that what you will.) After all, Patrick is way more interested in watching his own bod in the big mirror when he’s having sex with women. And the “closet homosexual” is the first person to inspire murderous rage in Patrick.

Women don’t escape his wrath, of course, and for me, the funniest scene in the movie sees Patrick racing naked down the hallway outside his apartment, a running chainsaw held phallically upright at crotch level, chasing a woman he means to kill. I thought, This is how this guy imagines himself, as a horrible sexual predator, virile and strong, when in reality he’s such a bland, forgettable “dork” that even his own lawyer mistakes him for someone else, and the only women he can cajole into sex with him are prostitutes or a not-all-there lithium addict.

The thing that makes the delusion interpretation of the film work so much better than if Patrick was actually killing everyone is this: It turns him into such an ineffectual dweeb that he can’t even act out his rage against the world. All that fury just gets channeled back into himself, feeding a descent into madness. Which I find a delicious metaphor for the emptiness and futility of the lifestyle American Psycho depicts as having spawned this maniac in the first place.

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