Christian Bale delivers a landmark performance in this adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel.
Who made it?: Mary Harron (Director/Co-Writer), Guinivere Turner (Co-Writer), Edward R. Pressman (Producer), Lions Gate.
Who’s in it?: Christian Bale, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Chloë Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis.
Tagline: “Killer looks.”
IMDb rating: 7.6/10.
Perhaps we’re all just products of the era in which we live. Does society decide what kind of person we become, or is it a conscious decision? That’s the problem plaguing Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman. He’s a prisoner in a world he detests, surrounded by people who only care about material possession. Bateman loathes himself because he has adopted their lifestyle. Subconsciously, at least. His need to blend socially has turned him into a disaffected shell, lost under a sea of neuroses. He’s starting to sound really familiar.
Bateman is that over-exaggerated sense of the 80s superman, drifting through an endless barrage of fancy restaurants, designer shops, and meaningless office banter. He’s self-centred and full of himself, resenting just about everyone and everything. Bateman even hates his fiancé Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), perhaps due to her strong feelings toward him, clashing with his pre-programmed idea of what a relationship should be. So, in order to give his life any meaning at all, he resorts to his own brand of debauchery… bloody murder. After killing a colleague, Bateman soon finds his mental health spiralling out of control, attacking innocent people at will. Even when a detective (Willem Dafoe) begins snooping around, he finds it impossible to curb his murderous impulses. Will his friends and co-workers discover the “real” Patrick Bateman?
Bret Easton Ellis completed the novel American Psycho in 1991, and it caused controversy from the jump. After his auspicious debut, Less Than Zero, Ellis had acquired a reputation as a writer of dark and uncompromising material. Psycho would push his macabre sensibilities to the extreme, causing outrage in the press for its graphic death scenes and misogynistic violence. Yet, a few critics were able to recognise Ellis’ aim. In the form of Bateman, the writer was able to essay a stinging comment on the yuppie sub-culture of the 1980s. He was a veteran of the period, and has written about the decade’s laissez-faire attitude in all of his books, from campus-based classic The Rules of Attraction to the more recent Glamorama. His satire is pitch-black and hard to stomach, so no wonder critics were polarised. It continues to divide readers, but has become a modern classic dissected by literary students as a benchmark of storytelling technique.
Nine years later, Lions Gate released the motion picture. Many were sceptical that American Psycho would work as a film; the brutality in the novel was too extreme, and the subjects presented were considered too cerebral for mainstream audiences to absorb. It wasn’t a commercially-viable entity in the eyes of studios, and several directors passed after realising how challenging the material was to adapt, including David Cronenberg. At one point, splatter king Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) was attached, and Leonardo Di Caprio campaigned for the part of Bateman. Imagine that movie for a moment. The film would eventually fall into the hands of Mary Harron. Her debut, I Shot Andy Warhol, was notable for its thoughtful treatment of a conflicted protagonist. Such experience clearly aided her when adapting Ellis’ complex tome, and she co-wrote the screenplay with Guinevere Turner (who also appears in the film, as Patrick’s old college friend Elizabeth). In my opinion, the pair did an incredible job – this can’t have been an easy assignment. American Psycho ranks alongside Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Naked Lunch in the annals of tricky adaptations. The resulting script is something of a miracle.
For all its audacious charms, the novel was hardly an enjoyable read. In fact, it was downright infuriating at times. The rambling, stream-of-consciousness style adopted by Ellis was quite wearing – everything was described in minute detail, and few of the passages had relevance to the story. We’re in Bateman’s head when you read the book, and it’s a crazy place to be. The novel is incoherent and unfocused, but that was the entire point. The 80s was all about image, so the fact that Ellis spent so much time describing trendy restaurants and fashion is hardly surprising. Thankfully, the film is much easier to sample; Harron and Turner still eschew a traditional plot, but never confound the viewer with useless information. Their choices are economical, taking the essence of the material and making it work as a piece of screen entertainment.
Harron’s technical savvy sets the tone well. From the beautifully designed titles (drops of raspberry sauce are mistaken for blood) to the hectic denouement, American Psycho is an elegantly-handled film. In fact, her direction merely reinforces Ellis’ infatuation with surface. The film has a graceful quality – slow, almost stately camera movement, richly detailed photography, and moody lighting, giving the movie a dreamlike aesthetic. The slow pace actually works wonders for the film, and the familiarity of each scene really sells the monotony of Bateman’s life. We follow him and his peers (all of whom are completely interchangeable) from club to club, as they seek to escape their humdrum, perfect lives. Even the insight into Bateman’s fitness and shopping routines seem vital, showing us exactly why Bateman is the way he is. If he doesn’t buy the Rolex or wear the latest Armani suit, he’ll fail to impress his co-workers, and that’s not an option. One of the more popular sequences in the film is when his colleagues reveal their new business cards, all of which are nicer than his, only for Bateman to become visibly shaken. Something so trivial makes Bateman sick to his stomach. Hilarious.
Speaking of sickness, we should consider the use of violence in the film. Harron rightly made the decision to avoid depicting the bloodshed in an unflinching manner. Instead of emphasising the graphic details like Ellis, Harron often cuts away in the gory scenes, offering a quick glimpse of claret here and there. The full impact is left to the imagination, and the horrific moments have a greater resonance as a result. A sequence in which Bateman beats up a pair of prostitutes is a prime example; Harron doesn’t show the event itself, only the aftermath, when the bruised ladies are stumbling out of Bateman’s apartment. I actually appreciated this technique, and you’ll remember more than there actually is. That’s probably due to the moments of old-fashioned horror thrown into the mix for good measure, including the ghoulish scene in which Bateman chases one of the hookers down a corridor wielding a chainsaw. It would be right at home in a run-of-the-mill slasher movie, but this convention also functions to develop the Bateman character – we see him watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in an earlier scene. Not only does the culture define his business and social life, but his killing, too. The poor man is trying desperately to be hip.
Harron combines culture and murder most effectively during the darkly hilarious Huey Lewis and The News segment. A know-it-all on the chart hits of the time, Bateman regales co-worker Paul Allen (Jared Leto) with a career retrospective on the band, before laying into him with an axe (yes, Batman kills The Joker with an axe). He’s bright and effervescent here, brimming with excitement. The murder is almost a release. Moments later, he slumps into a chair, exhausted. Then the panic sets in. Few films ever show the patterns undertaken by serial killers, and actually concentrate squarely on their activities to make you understand them. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer did it most effectively, and like that film, American Psycho never really feels sympathy for its title monster. The film doesn’t apologise for his acts.
There are caveats, however. Like the book, the movie never really develops its peripheral personalities. Bateman’s co-workers are ciphers, and never get any attention. Strange that Harron would cast recognisable faces like Josh Lucas. This could be considered an extension of the social commentary, just like everything in this film, since no-one really knows each other – they certainly don’t know Bateman. Still, the other characters don’t amount to any importance, including Witherspoon’s jilted fiancé and Bateman’s tryst Courtney, played with a ditzy charm by Samantha Mathis. I wanted to know more about Dafoe’s character, too. Detective Kimball is an interesting man – we’re never sure if he sees right through Bateman, or if he is totally oblivious to his guilt. He disappears sometime before the conclusion, when he should have played a larger role.
The dealbreaker for some audiences might be the ending, which is certainly ambiguous. It asks us to question all of the events leading up to that point – a factor which makes those repeat viewings a necessity. But Harron never gives us any answers, which could satisfy some but annoy many others. I’m in the former camp, especially since American Psycho works best as a film you can decipher. It’s ripe with subtext and the enigmatic coda certainly poses some interesting questions. That said, the film also works as pure entertainment. This is thanks to the brilliance of Bale – the actor became Bateman. He is utterly convincing in the main role, running the gamut from arrogant prick to terrifying maniac. He dominates the film, carrying it on his shoulders and bringing out every facet of Bateman’s tortured personality without a hint of (genuine) vanity. It’s a performance for the ages.
American Psycho is an evocative jumble of genres and ideas that is sure to infuriate as many people as it entertains. It is a period piece, a satire, a horror movie, and a comedy. Such a potent mix might explain the film’s lukewarm box office reception, but such diversity has made it a cult classic over time. Harron’s picture is also the rare example of an adaptation that improves on the source material, at least in my opinion, and is therefore one of the most underrated movies of the last twenty years.
Yeah, that business card scene is brilliant, and Leto’s death is funnier now than it was at the time, but the best sequence for me is Bateman’s breathless confession to his lawyer over the phone, proving Bale’s worth as an actor. He’s simply amazing here and utterly convincing as a man who’s just lost it. Harron also uses the monologue as an excuse to reference murders that aren’t in the film, but were described in detail in the novel.
- Bale based much of his performance on Tom Cruise, after seeing him on a chatshow during pre-production. He noted that the actor had “this very intense friendliness, with nothing behind the eyes.” He also spoke in an American accent at all times, even off-set. So convincing was his voice-work that most of the crew didn’t realise he was British until filming had ended.
- In preparation for the infamous three-way sex scene (which was cut to get the film an R-rating), Harron and Bale watched pornography. According to Harron’s commentary, Bale made stick-figure drawings of the positions he thought would be suitable.
- The biggest budgetary hurdle was acquiring the rights to the pop hits on the soundtrack. “Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News, which is featured prominently, doesn’t appear on the album due to a clearance issue.
- In the final scene, you can see “This is not an exit” on a door behind Bateman. These are the last words of the novel.
- Lions Gate made another Ellis adaptation, The Rules of Attraction (2002), which focuses on Bateman’s younger brother Sean (James Van Der Beek). Bale was asked to reprise the role in a cameo, but declined. Despite this, Patrick is mentioned in the film.
- A straight-to-video “sequel,” American Psycho 2, was released in 2002, and starred Mila Kunis and William Shatner. The film has very little connection to the first, although Bateman is revealed to be dead.