One of the best satirical films of the last 25 years, Mary Harron’s and Guinevere Turner’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious novel “American Psycho” is an excellent mix of comedy, horror, and social satire.
Originally written in 1991, Ellis’s novel was so controversial that the original publisher, Simon and Schuster, decided to let Ellis keep his $300,000 advance for writing the novel and shelved it. The rights were eventually picked up by Vintage (Random House’s highbrow quality paperback division) who published it in paperback. Unfortunately, many of the book’s early critics focused solely on the graphic murder scenes, which … while they are indeed disturbing … only comprise a small percentage of the actual book. A New York Times critic called it “a how-to manual on the torture and dismemberment of women.” Yes, it’s true that the lead character Patrick Bateman hates women. He also hates homeless people, homosexuals, Jews, African-Americans, prostitutes, his fellow privileged white friends, bartenders, waitresses, his fiance, his mistress, dogs, rats, dry cleaners, live concerts, etc. Just because a book’s lead character is a misanthropic, misogynist a–hole serial killer, doesn’t mean the story, let alone the author, supports that viewp… ah, what’s the use in even explaining this? Look, many people don’t like Ellis’s book for a variety of reasons, but the hysterical overreaction (and sole focus on Bateman’s misogyny, which again, is just one component of his overall misanthropy) was completely misguided and a product of the ultra-politically correct early 1990s. The fact that “Psycho” is now considered a literary classic bears this out.
Interestingly, Ellis later admitted Bateman WAS based on him, but only because like Bateman, he was obsessed with buying and consuming things, which made him miserable instead of happy. From an interview Ellis gave to “The California Chronicle” in 2010 “[Bateman] was crazy the same way [I was]. He did not come out of me sitting down and wanting to write a grand sweeping indictment of yuppie culture. It initiated because of my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life. I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. That is where the tension of ‘American Psycho’ came from. It wasn’t that I was going to make up this serial killer on Wall Street. High Concept. Fantastic. It came from a much more personal place, and that’s something that I’ve only been admitting in the last year or so. I was so on the defensive because of the reaction to that book that I wasn’t able to talk about it on that level.”
Bateman is someone who knows he’s not normal … knows that he is, in effect, a psycho. So he overcompensates by aggressively trying to fit in. Like an alien studying what it’s like to be human, he obsesses over all of the material possessions in his life and others: clothing, cars, food, restaurants, business cards, workout machines, audio-video equipment, pornography, etc. He reads obsessively and expresses all the so-called popular viewpoints in public (anti-nuclear weapons, anti-racism). Yet inside he hates everything and everyone around him, including himself. As Bateman explains, “…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.”
Christian Bale delivers, in my opinion, his all-time best performance as Bateman. Leonardo di Caprio and Johnny Depp were once slated to play Bateman. And while I think they would have done a good job, Bale is the perfect choice. Not only is he a terrific actor, Bale is British playing an American with an American accent. While Bale’s accent is impeccable, there’s still something slightly off about it. Since Bateman is a monster pretending to be a human being, Bale’s characterization is frighteningly perfect. Bale said that a large part of his characterization was based on watching Tom Cruise being interviewed on talk shows. According to Harron, Bale told her he was struck by Cruise’s “very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes, and he was really taken with this energy.”
The idea of having a female director and screenwriter behind the film version of “American Psycho” may seem like a cynical ploy to keep feminist critics at bay. But Harron has always been a terrific director (“I Shot Andy Warhol,” “The Notorious Bettie Page”) and Turner struck the correct balance between the novel’s humor and horror. Overall, the two created a classic and a film, while it got some respectful notices when released, remains severely underrated to this day.
The attached 20-minute plus summary of clips contains many spoilers and also very disturbing violence, sexuality, and language. It is not safe for work or children. But if you have a strong stomach and a highly evolved sense of humor, “American Psycho” is one hell of a movie. It is one of those films that you will not have an indifferent reaction to.