Director: Mary Harron
Few books in recent memory have sparked as much discussion and controversy as American Psycho, written by Bret Easton Ellis. Inciting numerous protests following its initial publication in 1991 (one group called it an instruction manual for budding misogynists), it returned literary society to a day in which books were life and death, and served as more than a way to kill a few hours. Its extreme and graphic violent and sexual content caused an uproar, many decrying it as an instruction manual for budding young murderers. Ellis's original manuscript was even denied by its initial publisher, Simon and Schuster, due to some of the company's female employees raising a stink during the editing process. Of course, it was only a matter of time before somebody made a movie version of it. Adapted into a film by I Shot Andy Warhol director Mary Harron and screenwriting partner Guinevere Turner, American Psycho is naturally tamer than its source material, yet still manages to be a chillingly demented film.
Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) has everything a man could hope for. He's a well-to-do Wall Street power broker with more money than he knows what to do with. His fiancée Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) is gorgeous, as is his coked-up mistress Courtney (Samantha Mathis) and his devoted secretary Jean (Chloë Sevigny). He's got designer suits in his closet and designer pharmaceuticals in his bathroom. Bateman's entire life is based around superficial things, and like his peers and colleagues, he is fueled by a desire for more. The more he acquires, the more individuality he loses. The more individuality he loses, the less control he has over the urges that, ironically, give him his individuality. You see, Patrick Bateman likes to murder people. He doesn't care if it's a homeless person, a prostitute, a friend, someone he's just met, or even an animal, Bateman's desire to kill is insatiable.
Few films can be horrific, charming, and hilarious at the same time, yet American Psycho pulls it off. A satire of the late-'80s "Reaganomics" yuppie society, the movie blends horror and dark comedy perfectly. Patrick Bateman is everything that the yuppie stereotype would lead you to believe. He is rich, self-absorbed, addicted to sex and cocaine. He and his peers are prime examples of what noted economist Thorstein Veblen referred to as "conspicuous consumption." Outside of his murderous desires and extreme antisocial behavior, Patrick Bateman is really no different from any of his colleagues. They're just as hollow and faceless as he is. They all thrive on conforming to a materialistic, superficial mold. One scene in the film features Bateman and his friends comparing business cards prior to a meeting. Each person tries to trump the other with the details of their card, yet all the cards look exactly the same. However, Bateman goes to extreme ends to conform to the appearances and values of his peers. If the desires of his friends are comparable to those of a blood-hungry murderer, what does that say about them?
Bateman cares about nothing but status. When his fiancée suggests he quits his job, he flatly refuses. She asks why, he retorts "Because I want to fit in." However, as his murderous desires get stronger and his crimes get more frightening, his desire to be noticed becomes greater as well. He constantly brings up pointless minutiae about serial killers like Ed Gein and Ted Bundy, and randomly drops in lines such as "I like to dissect girls. Did you know that I am utterly insane?" He goes as far as to describe his job not as "mergers and acquisitions," but as "murders and executions." However, either nobody notices or nobody cares. They are completely oblivious to his admissions of guilt, like he never said anything at all. Even his blatant death threats are looked over. "I'm going to stab you and play with your blood" isn't the kind of sentence one should ignore, is it? It's like everyone is so wrapped up in themselves, that they just don't care if a serial killer is in their midst.
The acting is absolutely astounding. Christian Bale is absolutely wonderful. He doesn't play Patrick Bateman; he becomes Patrick Bateman. He takes the role and makes it seem real, right down to his sardonic personality and calm killer instinct. Even in the most over-the-top scenes, Bale is a believable character. If I didn't know any better, I'd truly believe that Bale was a psychotic yuppie. His calm, almost friendly demeanor despite the harsh, condescending words he speaks is almost comedic, but disconcerting as well. If I knew he wasn't completely serious, I'd almost think he was joking. I also enjoyed Chloë Sevigny and Resse Witherspoon as Bateman's secretary and his ditzy fiancée, respectively. The rest of the cast (including Jared Leto and Willem Dafoe) are all great, as well, but the movie is all about Christian Bale. The whole movie rested on the ability of the actor playing that role, and Bale pulled it off excellently.
Like I said before, the movie's not just a horror flick, but a dark comedy as well. I doubt the comedy would have worked that well if it were not for the strength of both the cast, and the script penned by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner. Harron and Turner's script is nothing short of brilliant. They never truly answer whether Bateman is imagining things or if he really is a murderer, but I believe that was for the best. Sometimes open endings like that can be very good, as they make for intriguing discussion topics after the credits have rolled. Meanwhile, Harron's direction is also wonderful. Not only does it feature its own comedic take on the Ear Scene from Reservoir Dogs (or the "Singin' In The Rain" scene from A Clockwork Orange, if you prefer), but it features one of the weirdest, most insane chase scenes I've ever had the pleasure of viewing. You can't go wrong with that. I should also point out the brilliant bit of filmmaking that is the aforementioned "Hip To Be Square" scene. At the end, one side of Bateman's face is covered in blood, with his hair a wild, unkempt mess. The other side is spotless, and he looks like nothing happened. He almost appears to be a gore-soaked version of Batman villain Two-Face. I took this to be representative of his dual nature as a yuppie by day, and a sex-crazed psychopath by night. If that was the intention, bravo to Harron. I also absolutely love the music in the movie. Velvet Underground bassist John Cale gives us an excellent score, with both gorgeous pianos and haunting strings where needed. And the songs in the movie... holy cow. We've got Phil Collins (both solo and with Genesis), Huey Lewis & The News, New Order, Robert Palmer, David Bowie, Katrina & The Waves, and an orchestral version of Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All." Just listening to the music is an experience all to itself.
Quite a few reviewers who ride upon a high horse are quick to complain that a movie (and ostensibly, a novel) seen directly through the eyes of a brutal, sadistic serial killer is not something an everyday Joe should read. However, what makes no sense is that people can deride American Psycho for its misogyny and violence, yet praise movies like The Silence of the Lambs. I love The Silence of the Lambs, don't get me wrong. It's one of my favorite movies. But watching it, I saw a cannibal attempt to bite a police officer's nose off before beating another officer to death with a nightstick. There was also the man who kept women in a pit in his basement, starving them in order to "loosen their skin" so he could peel it off their body and craft a suit made from their flesh. The only real difference between American Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs is that American Psycho is its point of view. The Silence of the Lambs has Clarice Starling serving as something of a moral high ground, yet if it had been told through the eyes of Buffalo Bill, it would perhaps have been closer in tone to American Psycho.
Buit if it absolutely had to be compared to another film, I'd say the movie is what would happen if Gordon Gecko from Wall Street was the main character of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Upon first glance, American Psycho may seem like the story of a conceited, boring yuppie who is only interesting when he's committing horrible acts of violence. But if viewed as the satire it really is, it can serve as a statement about the morals (or lack thereof) of a materialistic society. I think that statement still holds up today, in a society judges you by the clothes you wear, the car you drive, and the CDs you own. For a wonderful satire featuring a great cast and a great soundtrack, I'll give this one four and a half stars. Go rent it with an open mind, and I think you might enjoy it.
Final Rating: ****½