Originally a novel written by Bret Easton Ellis, one of the many writers that introverted white teenagers will indulge in to mask their inherent misogyny as intellectual “dark humour”, American Psycho, directed by real-life human woman Mary Harron, follows the first-person account of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a Wall Street professional-asshole moonlighting as a depraved killer, rapist, cannibal etc.
The film was met, despite its dramatic toning-down of the source material, with a similar reception to Ellis’ work; as a garishly-transgressive, if morbidly-captivating, piece of narcissism satire. Since then, it’s been immortalised as a cult classic, with its mass of iconic scenes, as well as Bale’s breakthrough performance (not counting Empire of the Sun, of COURSE). Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, critiquing American Psycho, so opposed to and mocking of critique, seems only too apt.
Obviously, the prime talking point around American Psycho is Christian Bale smugly butchering his way to mainstream recognition as the eponymous anti-hero. As Bateman, Bale injects this insistently-confrontational charisma that only serves to further cement the character as totally hateable. Everything from his pretentious meandering about the history of Genesis (I’m reminded of the many times I’ve been cornered at parties by someone compelled to tell me about the difference between prog and psych (I have also been on the other end, granted)) to passive-aggressively competing with his co-workers, all the way to his chainsawing of a prostitute, it’s all imbued with this male need for dominance.
Even in his most frenzied moments, Bale portrays Bateman with a preciseness that you don’t really see anywhere else. It speaks to a need of control over one’s surroundings, from the conversational to the sexual to the professional to the homicidal; Bateman needs to win. Despite the copy-and-pasted dialogue from the book, there is a framing from Harron that is knowingly masculine; almost like catcalling a construction worker. The blatant misogyny in a lot of the dialogue is unchallenged yet is so blatant that you can’t help but laugh at the perpetrators, turning that “product of its time” trope on its head.
This shamelessly tacky dialogue contrasts the focus on sophistication throughout the movie. Of course, if there was one thing that American Psycho as a narrative is looking to dismantle, it’s the consumerist idea of “fitting in”. The way it does this, through Bateman and his murdery tendencies, is through their adjacency to such murderiness. A great scene is where Patrick is furiously working out, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the telly. It only lasts a second, but seeing the two acts, the two sides to Bateman’s coin, run so concurrently is a really excellent piece of visual storytelling on Harron’s part.
This is the idea that is explored in the more nuanced dialogue. As mentioned, a lot of the screenplay was lifted verbatim by the novel and, with that, the razor-sharp, yet bluntly-delivered, wit of Ellis. Some of most famous scenes (Hip to be Square and the business card comparisons) are defined by how bone-dry and self-knowingly funny they are. However, there is a level of obvious comedy to the film, as well, as all of Bateman’s co-workers, all with executive, nondescript job titles, are bumbling idiots. The pinnacle of these is Paul Allen, played by Jared Leto. Though he’s not initially memorable, as he only sticks around for a dinner before being axed to fuck to Huey Lewis, the sheer similarity to Bale’s performance only serves highlight how homogenised yuppie culture, or any kind of clique or “aesthetic”, can be.
That said, there was nothing forgettable about where Leto met his end. While American Psycho has got its moments of being a bit too obvious, everything about the scene where Bateman kills Allen with an axe to Huey Lewis (most 80s Cluedo guess ever) is joyful maximalist. The intersections of frustrating twattiness, brilliant humour and shocking violence come together here perfectly. Bale plays the scene with a levity that cuts through how disturbing the whole thing is, at one point moonwalking as readies his weapon, before launching into a frenzy. The actual murder is offscreen, but the image of Bale in a shock of blood-stained hair will be one to line the halls of horror with.
The scene is a prime example of the dynamite use of music in the film. It’s well-known that much of the already-slim $7million budget was spent on music licensing from the aforementioned Huey Lewis, Phil Collins, Chris De Burgh and others — including an appearance from New Order’s True Faith, which has an eerie parallelism to the documentary Don’t Fuck With Cats on rewatching. Much of the more violent moments are soundtracked with this psychopathically-peppy 80s pop music, your Hip to be Squares and Sussudios etc. On the other hand, the rest is lilted by John Cale’s comparatively ambient, eerie score. This is yet another exploration of contrast in the film, that Bateman’s homicidal outbursts are heralded with joyous synth-pop, and his supposed-domestic bliss is droned with a nulling hum.
However, no film is without fault and the perceived-perfection of American Psycho is no different. With such a strong lead performance, there is no room for anyone else to build even a semblance of a real characterisation. Sure, there is that level of single-minded narcissism that is knowingly perpetrated, but it’s still a shame when you have such strong talent as Chloe Sevigny and Willem Dafoe — both of which I bet you forgot were even in it if you haven’t watched it recently.
One critique that Ellis had of the film was its narration, which wasn’t as obvious in the novel. For the most part, however, I really found that the, especially in the opening scenes, Bateman’s monotonous breakdown of his material worth was a great tonesetter. That said, as the film progresses, these narrations stop providing a satire and start just peddlin’ that exposition which, as noted, takes away any ambiguity. Speaking of which, the conclusion, a real point-of-contention in the novel, plunges itself in a tonal switch-up that comes completely leftfield, forcing that maximalism into a more unforgiving exposure.
Overall, American Psycho is a fascinatingly-sharp satire of masculinity, narcissism and consumerism — hitting each facet with the blunt force of a meat tenderiser. Carried by a superb, career-making turn from Christian Bale, the characterisation of Patrick Bateman is extremely well-realised, making him one of the most watchable assholes to ever grace the big screen. A couple of narrative discrepancies slightly mar what is one of the most notoriously-repentless, yet morbidly-gratifying thrillers of the century.