American Psycho

Funny, irreverent, 'Hitchcockian', and much more

by Donato Totaro Volume 4, Issue 2 / March 2000 6 minutes (1469 words)

If Alfred Hitchcock were alive today, this is the type of film I could imagine him making: irreverent, funny (very), dark, and calculating. The one element which links American Psycho to contemporary cinema is the way it slowly, cleverly pushes toward the fuzzy boundary separating reality and fantasy, a narrative objective-subjective ploy utilized to varying ends by such recent films as Eyes Wide Shut, The Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, Dellamorte Dellamore (Michele Soavi, It., 1994), S. (Guido Hendericks, Belgium, 1999), and Open Your Eyes (Alejandro Amenábar, Sp., 1997) [not to mention the science-fiction “is-it-reality-or-virtual-reality” take on the same theme, Cube, Matrix, eXistenZ, Dark City, etc.).

Critics and audiences seem to be divided on this one, but as far as I’m concerned, this is one of the best times I’ve had at a cinema in a long while, simply because American Psycho delivers on so many levels. It is rip-roaringly funny, in a darkly ironic way, scathingly satirical, suspenseful, and, yes, at times under-your-skin creepy. Like most of the aforementioned films, American Psycho begins with a fairly realistic setting, introducing us to a 27-year old ultra-successful financial analyst, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale). The “Bate-Man” surname is no doubt author Bret Easton Ellis’ coy reference to the American cinema’s über-serial killer Norman Bates. (Anthony Perkins from Hitchcock’s Psycho 1960, in the event that you’ve been living under a rock for the last 40 odd years.) Bateman lives in a perfectly sanitized, perfectly ordered world, not unlike that populated by his 1990’s counterpart from The Fight Club, Edward Norton and his “Ikea” catalogue apartment. The opening scene of Bateman, in voice-over, taking us through his hyper-detailed, morning brand-name cosmetic ritual is hilarious (eye pad, skin cleanser, skin moisturizer, facial mask, etc.). This is a man sickly driven to surrounding himself with what he thinks are the most aesthetically pleasing, beautiful, and costly artifacts: the 1980’s consumerism and body craze taken to a metaphorical, psychotic level (the 1980’s “trickle down” economic theory, only here it is droplets of blood that trickle down, playfully represented in the films’ opening credit sequence).

And this is where much of the film’s humor comes from. Although Bateman thinks he is an extremely cultured, erudite, and sophisticated person -his actual personal taste is appallingly bad. He is like a late 20th century metaphor for the Nazi’s, who surrounded themselves with great art and culture, while rotting away inside. This comes through in the personal pop music critiques Bateman offers ritualistically before his cathartic releases of sex or death (pretty much the same thing for Bateman, all about style and execution). As foreplay to the old “ultra violence”, Bateman puts on a CD and begins to wax philosophically on its relative musical value. According to Bateman, Huey Lewis and the News were fine until they started sounding “too black.” Genesis was “too artsy and intellectual” and became worthwhile only after Phil Collins’ creative presence took command. And, much to the dismay of one Bateman’s call girls, he claims that Whitney Houston wrote some of the world’s “greatest pop songs.”

In a film that tears the heart out of the America dream, makes fun of its most beloved leader, Ronald Reagan, and depicts a mad, violent, misogynist soul, what do you think has most offended the American moral watchdogs: a ménage-a-trois sex scene (ditto for the James Toback film Black & White)! This much-touted “controversial” ménage-a-trois is at once the film’s funniest and perhaps creepiest scene. Bateman’s performance, greatly enhanced by Harron’s mise-en-scene and editing, is embarrassingly funny. While getting it on with a couple of call girls to the rhythmic pulsation of the Phil Collins “Sussudio”, Bateman admires his body-in-action staring back at him in his huge bedroom mirror, flexing his muscles, running his hand through his designer hair, while completely avoiding eye contact with the two slightly bewildered call girls (perhaps a reflection of how alienated and detached prostitutes must actually feel). As if this act was not misogynist enough, as one of the call girls leave we see her face is bruised and bloodied.

Now I don’t know how film literate director Harron is, but this narcissistic moment seems like a direct reference to the scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1982 film Identification of a Woman, where a beautiful bourgeois woman is being masturbated by a man and at the moment of climax stares lovingly at herself in a mirror hanging above the bed (or else this is just a great coincidence). Director Harron underscores this ironic use of outward beauty/inner degradation with a finely detailed art direction and high key sophisticated visual sheen (from cinematographer Andrzej Sekula, who lensed Pulp Fiction). Everything shimmers and shines on the outside, from Bateman’s impeccable physique (how in the heck could runt Leonardo DiCaprio played this role with the same presence is beyond me!), to his all-white apartment, to the corporate business cards that colleagues flash around like statements of moral worth.

The ménage-a-trois scene is an example of one way the film builds tension. Given his previous behavior we expect that Bateman will murder the two call girls. But he does not, preferring to beat them and maybe “save” them for another time (and he does call one of them back for a second romp). So we are never sure just what Bateman will do, and when his crazed blood lust will take over. As the film progresses, Harron adds to this behavioral uncertainty an ontological uncertainty: is Bateman actually murdering these people or is it all part of his increasingly delusional mind-state? Is the psycho-bloodlust merely a way for Bateman to project the forceful, aggressive masculine image expected of the corporate world (like the James Spader and Jack Nicholson characters in Wolf)? And is he then just a put-upon “dork”, as characters throughout the film periodically state? It is clear, as Harron has stated in interviews, that some of the murders are genuine. Guessing at which moments the film slips over into subjective psychosis is just one more playful touch the film offers us and that, like The Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, rewards a second viewing.

Throughout the film we are given glimpses of his subjective psychosis, in the form of aggressive, violent dialogue he projects onto his listeners. In one bar scene he is smooth talking a group of female models and we hear his interiority (“murders and executions”) instead of what he actually said, “mergers and acquisitions.” In another scene he responds to an unfriendly barmaid by yelling at her – not an exact quote – “You fucking ugly bitch, how about I play with your blood”. The character of the private investigator, played by Willem Dafoe, serves a similar function to Brad Pitt in The Fight Club: a projected alter ego döppelganger. Which is why they are always framed together symmetrically, sitting across from each other in his office or at a restaurant, or shot in mirror image reverse shots. The fact that Bateman’s outlandish behavior goes unnoticed by onlookers and friends can be also taken as a satirical comment on the mask of status. In a world where appearances mean so much, everything in this particular corner of the world, no one could possibly suspect such a handsome, rich, well-groomed icon to be a killer (like the serial killer priest in Pete Walker’s horror classic The Confessional (1974) who hides behind his identity as a priest to avoid suspicion). By Bateman’s final killing spree, which is completely over the top and unfeasible, Harron has taken the narrative completely over the line into monstrous subjective fantasy (the scene is strongly reminiscent of Rupert Everett’s surreal killing spree near the end of Dellamorte Dellamore). Harron completes the journey inward by ending the film with a slow dolly into an extreme close-up of Bateman’s eyes (similar though not identical to the slow dolly into Norman Bates’ face in the penultimate shot of Psycho, while he tells us in voice-over that his confession should not be taken for the truth. Maybe not, but clearly we are not in a postmodern world where “Truth” is all relative. And anyone who laughs with and not at Richard Bateman has clearly missed the point of American Psycho.

Director: Mary Harron Screenplay: Mary Harron & Guinevere Turner, based on novel by Bret Easton Ellis Producer: Ernie Barbarash, Joseph Drake Original music: John Cale Cinematography: Andrzej Sekula Editing: Andrew Marcus Production Design: Gideon Ponte Art Direction: Andrew M. Stearn Set Decoration: Jeanne Develle Costume Design: Isis Mussenden Sound: Henry Embry Special Effects: Michael Kavanagh

Cast: Christian Bale (Patrick Bateman), Willem Dafoe (Donald Kimball), Jared Leto (Paul Allen), Reese Witherspoon (Evelyn Williams), Samantha Mathis (Courtney Rawlinson), Chloë Sevigny (Jean), Justin Theroux (Timothy Bryce)

<i>American Psycho</i>

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 4, Issue 2 / March 2000 Film Reviews   genre_horror   horror   mary harron   mind fuck   post modern   serial killer