American Psycho Is About More Than Patrick Bateman’s Insanity
American Psycho’s obvious horror gushes from its ladies in red. Yet, after 20 years, there’s still no exit from Patrick Bateman – a soulless cipher for timeless greed.
Bloodied condiments drip through the opening frames, intricately adorning high-class restaurant cuisine. Could it be a metaphor for our lunatic’s dissecting of gorgeous women, or maybe the futility of luxury consumerism? Perhaps, it’s simply a showcase of a ‘playful but mysterious little dish’ – much like the film itself.
Abhorred readers decried Bret Easton Ellis’s original novel as the literary equivalent of a snuff film. Yet its transition to the screen, via the tricksy vision of Mary Harron, secured a meme-able legacy beyond the grotesque – limbo is, indeed, a place on Earth.
Execs initially resisted the former BBC documentarian’s ideas (at one time, the film was in the hands of Oliver Stone with Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead). However, at the turn of the millennium, Harron got her way. With the wicked assistance of Guinevere Turner, they birthed a prescient 21st century screen legend.
American Psycho follows the fragile plight of Bateman (a star-making performance from Christian Bale), a Wall Street investment banker inhabiting 1980s cookie-cutter yuppie culture. First, we get a glimpse of his mundane social life, touring fancy eateries and bars with his slicked-back peers. ‘They don’t have a good bathroom to do coke in,’ one sniffy suit complains.
At first, our protagonist actually appears to be above par, scolding his colleague’s casual anti-Semitism at the table. Soon after, we see Bateman’s mask of sanity slip when a barmaid turns her back. ‘You’re a f*cking ugly bitch. I want to stab you to death, then play around with your blood,’ he sneers, unbeknownst to the woman.
He’s a human with an absence of earnest humanity. ‘There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman,’ he says. ‘Some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me, only an entity, something allusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can sense our lifestyles are probably comparable, I am simply not there.’
One thing’s for sure – he is a psychopath. Steve McKeown, a psychoanalyst of The McKeown Clinic and YouTube’s themindguru, explained:
He has traits suggesting narcissistic personality disorder, where he exhibits exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy toward others. He also has borderline personality disorder, making him very emotionally unstable, where he has extreme thoughts and acts without too much thought, making him extremely dangerous.
Ellis’s 1991 novel evoked a furore unlike anything before it, vilified for Bateman’s first-person, lengthy, meticulous slaughter-book depictions of sex and violence towards women. For Harron, the bloodshed was the least-interesting aspect. ‘I decided early on that there should actually be quite little overt violence, that it should be suggested,’ she told AV Club.
The director tip-toed around cruelty: for example, when two sex workers ask to leave his apartment, Bateman opens his grisly yet diligently-organised drawer of toys and warns: ‘We’re not through yet.’ Seconds later, we see them depart, cut-up and bruised, trembling as they stumble. No exploitation: just the raw horror of the so-ever unseen and unaccountable.
Occasionally, there’s a splattering of gore. ‘You can’t keep teasing. You can’t keep pulling punches all the time,’ Harron said. There’s the stairway chainsaw drop, and most famously of all, poor Paul Allen’s (Jared Leto) murder, punctuated by Bateman’s beaming Huey Lewis and the News soliloquy – a darkly hilarious ‘absurdist set-piece’ that has echoed online ever since.
Our enjoyment of such chaotic disregard of life is entirely natural, and its iconicism is unsurprising. McKeown added:
Most of us have been socialised to respect human life, whom have a relatively normal spectrum of emotions, such as the ability to love, feel guilt, feel shame and remorse. The blatant contempt for life and the suffering of his victims exhibited by Bateman shocks our sense(s) of humanity and makes us question our safety and security. In some ways, movies and characters like Bateman are for adults what monster movies like Monsters, Inc. are for children basically, it’s scary fun!
While Ellis’s writing buried themes of consumerism, misogyny and classism under sadist text, the film plays on the other side of the coin. ‘That’s the best thing about it, the dark social stuff,’ Harron said. She picked up on the ‘absurdity of these straight male Wall Street rituals’ and, as Roger Ebert once noted, ‘transformed a novel about blood lust into a movie about men’s vanity’.
Dr. Alexander Swan, psychologist and creator/producer of the CinemaPsych podcast, praised Harron and Turner’s work, saying:
These two women chose to focus on extremely telling aspects about bro-culture of Wall Street in the 80s, Patrick’s obsession with women/pornography, and appearance. I do not think men would be able to recognise those subtle hints from the source material about Patrick’s mental state throughout the story… it’s quite masterful from my perspective.
Bateman’s true love isn’t in pounds of flesh – he’s a dweeb struck by St. Materialism’s arrow. ‘I want to fit in,’ he throbbingly urges, as his nattering fiancée (played with delectable zip by Reese Witherspoon) has the audacity to suggest he leave his job in the ivory tower.
Crystalline living, that’s the way. His spacious, top-to-bottom white apartment is his self-preservation arena, his own ode to his wealth. When women don’t ask what sort of job he has to acquire such a home, resentment leaps to the fore. If they do enquire how much it cost, he takes glee in saying it’s none of their business.
To allay a spirit untamed by normalcy, he maintains a pristine shell with a ‘rigorous morning routine’, which includes exercising to the backdrop of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The excruciating minutiae of his daily ablutions – lotion upon lotion upon lotion – is a more common mark of a well-kept man today. For Bateman though, it’s not about feeling good, it’s about looking better (in a later threesome, he’s more enamoured with his sweaty, chiselled frame than the touch of a woman).
For Harron, Bateman is ‘the embodiment of everything that’s wrong’ with aspirational capitalism. ‘Obsession with surfaces, obsession with status.’ In his world, murders and executions are synonymous in-hand with mergers and acquisitions. Pop culture, trends and the commoditisation of things are his performative fuel. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Of all the scenes, the clash of business cards reigns supreme. Bateman slides his across the table, which reads ‘Vice President’, proudly detailing its Bone shade and Silian Grail lettering. This gloat is curbed by a colleague, who pulls out his superior card (also reading Vice President), to which our psycho bitterly responds: ‘Nice.’
The worst is yet to come: Bateman then asks what Paul Allen’s card looks like. Upon glance, his universe collapses. ‘Look at that subtle colouring. The tasteful thickness. Oh my god, it even has a watermark,’ he says in equal parts aroused, heartbroken and furious.
From this malaise, there’s little reprieve. Sure, he can strut po-faced to the beat of Katrina and the Waves, or sit in close-eyed serenity with Chris De Burgh, but fury continues to spill from his nightdreams into his daymares. The victims of such wrath vary: one night it could be a homeless man and his dog, another could be a skewered woman under the sheets.
The patriarchy get away with murder, figuratively and literally. Even when Bateman lets his secretary (wonderfully performed by Chloë Sevigny) escape from surefire torture, she’s oblivious to the blade she dodged. Even with Willem Dafoe’s doggedly optimistic detective hot on Bateman’s trail in the case of Paul Allen, the threat of arrest always evades him.
What does the film actually present? An axe-wielding cartoonish maniac, or an everyday corporate bigwig on the verge of frenzy, simply seeking release from a flawed world that smugly values a seat at Dorsia more than good karma? The terrifying answer: it’s both.
Much like the novel, American Psycho’s feature adaptation unfurls the toxicity of Reaganist elitism in bygone decades. Yet as Harron points out, ‘it might’ve seemed like that was a past era, but we’ve never really left that era… the only thing that happened is people got better at covering it up’. Greed and disgust still prevail: it’s no wonder Bateman has a passing fixation on the Trumps.
In one moment, Bateman stares dead-eyed into the face of Les Miserables’ Cosette. Yet he cannot dream of a better world than the hell he’s living in. Even now, there’s no catharsis… this confession still meant nothing.
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