I had a bad habit when I was 17. Before I could legally buy movies with that blood red “18” cert I was scouring the internet for them. Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit On Your Grave, Ichi the Killer. Nothing was off limits but due to my limited time with a computer I rarely managed to watch many of the violent films I sought. Books weren’t a problem though so I quickly went from devouring every Stephen King novel I could find to moving onto more real, more insidious horror like Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.
It should be clear that I sought out these very violent and often controversial films and books not because of their great cultural and thematic merit but because they were violent and controversial. It was also because I was a 17 year old boy, give a kid a break. But it was books like Blood Meridian and American Psycho that made me look past their stark, unsparing violence and at the worlds that allowed this violence and its uniquely male perpetrators to operate unchecked. It’s safe to say that I’ve grown as a person since torrenting Ichi the Killer eight years ago, and in that time Ellis’ American Psycho has lowered in my estimation whereas Mary Harron’s American Psycho adaptation has exponentially grown.
Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a young Wall Street executive with a taste for fine clothes, finer women and murder. In Patrick’s eyes he is surrounded by dull simpering women like his fiancée Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) and secretary Jean (Chloe Sevigny) and oafish fools like Paul Allen (Jared Leto). Patrick spends his days either in his curiously lifeless apartment, in his weirdly drab office or out with his equally insufferable friends like Timothy Bryce (Justin Theroux). When his murder of Paul Allen sets Detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe) on his trail Patrick finds himself spiralling further into insanity with not just his freedom at risk but his sense of identity as well.
I read the novel twice, both times for its lurid violence. On second reading I was left unimpressed by both its violence and its story. Ellis’ words felt as empty as his characters, but Harron’s American Psycho breathed incredible life into those words – and as a result, the characters that said them. Co-written with Guinevere Turner, who also plays Elizabeth, one of Bateman’s victims, the film finds incredible depths to mine in the interactions between characters that feel like paper-thin sketches in the novel. Bateman is only capable of interacting with people that he can kill, fuck or impress. Outside of these three things Patrick is at a loss. Dealing with real human emotions or noticing that people other than himself have interior lives is enough to send him into a sweating, shivering panic attack.
It stands to reason then that the only people that can throw this misogynistic, maybe serial killer through a loop are women. Harron’s casting of Christian Bale – at 26 still best known for Newsies and Little Women – was a stroke of genius but she added to this genius by surrounding Bale with other incredible actors. A delightfully slimy Theroux and a toned-down Dafoe worked wonders but in particular acting royalty Witherspoon and indie darling Sevigny were the crippling foils to Bateman’s seemingly unstoppable psychosis.
In one scene, a break-up with Evelyn goes horribly wrong. In a very crowded, very fancy restaurant Bateman cannot slice up or seduce Evelyn (I doubt he could do it at home either) and as Evelyn bawls her eyes out Patrick is left slack-jawed and stuttering. He leaves finishing with his lame but consistent excuse of “I have to return some videotapes”. Later on in the film, a date with Jean – “My secretary, who is in love with me” – doesn’t even make it beyond Patrick’s apartment. Unwittingly she chips away at Patrick’s image of her as another dumb, blonde victim by discussing her desire to travel and – Shock! Horror! – go back to school. Even as he points a nail gun at the back of her head he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It’s the closest that Patrick actually comes to having a real, identifiable human emotion other than greed or disgust and it shocks him into mercy.
For all its bloody murder, horrifying misogyny and dripping unease, American Psycho is hilarious. Not a whole lot of people seemed to recognise that at its Sundance debut in 2000, however. Bale’s faux sincerity over a Huey Lewis and the News CD combined with his jaunty moonwalk and fixed-on dummy smile don’t make the barbaric axe murder of Paul Allen any less horrifying but they do take the edge off. Elsewhere the business card comparisons feel as much like an evisceration of corporate culture as the entirety of Bonfire of the Vanities did. In a similar way the extra shouting “Excuse me! I’m trying to do drugs in here!” at Bateman and Bryce is all you really need to know about the 1980s.
American Psycho was ultimately about confronting the ugliness of a society that felt like it was reaching its breaking point. Patrick Bateman was a metaphor for the bad death of the 80s just as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was for the bullet in the skull of the 60s. Society as we know it has been broken for a long time, maybe even forever. It’s just taken us a few thousand years to learn that. Only now, when it’s maybe too late, does it feel like we’re starting to pick up the pieces.
It was films like American Psycho that held up a mirror to what we had become: greedy, depraved and careless. The “This Is Not An Exit” sign was always burning behind us. Bateman’s final line “This confession has meant nothing” may be true for him but for me, for filmmaking and for society that confession meant everything. As Willem Dafoe said in regard to American Psycho – although you could include any number of controversial films in this – “Sometimes we have to show negative behaviour to see other possibilities”.