AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)

  • Director: Mary Harron
  • Writers: Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis
  • Starring: Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Josh Lucas, Samantha Mathis, Matt Ross, Bill Sage, Chloe Sevigny, Cara Seymour, Justin Theroux, Guinevere Turner, Krista Sutton, and Reese Witherspoon
  • Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#18)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Peacock, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV

If you haven’t seen this movie or read the book it’s based on (a book so controversial the Australian government mandated it could only be sold in shrink wrap, so children couldn’t read it in the store), you may have an idea of what it is and what it’s about. I know I did. I’d definitely even seen a few scenes over the years, including the famous scene where Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) brutally ax-murders a co-worker (Jared Leto) in his minimalist, white New York apartment while blaring “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis and the News. Whatever you think, the actual movie is so much weirder, and probably more interesting, than you’ve imagined. Normally when I say something is “weird,” that means I like it. Honestly, I have no idea whether I “liked” American Psycho or not. Despite its name and general marketing a slasher flick, I don’t know if I’d really call it a “horror” movie, though there are bits where it wants to be. It’s also a satire on 80s consumerism and/or toxic masculinity, a comedy of manners, and a bunch of other weird stuff. In the end, I have no idea what actually “happened” in it, or if I’m supposed to have any idea.

American Psycho is set in the financial high life of Lower Manhattan, at the height of the “Greed is Good” 1980s. It follows Patrick Bateman (Bale), who spends most of his time striving with all of his might to appear the epitome of conformist Wall Street, worrying desperately about the exact shade of his business cards and the brand of his sheets. In this way, he is completely insane, but in a manner that is completely accepted, if not expected, by the people around him. What none of these people know is that Bateman has a deep urge to brutally murder, well, basically anyone who rubs him the wrong way, an urge he usually sates via prostitutes or homeless people, but occasionally bullies its way into his “real” life. Or that’s what Bateman says to us, anyhow, in his voiceovers. We get the sense that he is the most unreliable of narrators, a sense that gets more and more acute as the movie continues, to the point where there is vociferous dispute over whether anyone is “actually” murdered in this movie.

Both the book and the movie were accused of promoting violence and misogyny, accusations that seem to be borne out of a fundamental misunderstanding and yet are not entirely wrong. The number of people who have watched American Psycho and seen in Bateman someone who has what he wants and gets what he wants is likely disappointingly large. The fundamental mistake, if there is one, that both the filmmakers and the original author, Bret Easton Ellis, made is in assuming that their satire would get through. The director of the movie, Mary Harron, stated in interviews that the basic point of the movie is that Bateman thinks he’s that super cool guy, but absolutely everyone, including both the other characters in the movie and the audience, is aware that he is a complete dweeb. “The one thing you couldn’t do is think that Bateman is in any way cool,” Harron said. But I’m fairly certain that lots of people have watched this movie and come away thinking exactly that. This isn’t so much the movie’s failure as those people’s.

Harron does not seem like a conventional choice to direct a movie like this. She had directed one previous feature, I Shot Andy Warhol, and had an interest in “dark and controversial” subject matter. One thing I found very interesting about American Psycho is the way that it sometimes subtly shifts out of Bateman’s point of view to that of his female victims, which both creates additional suspense and gives us that sense that it’s Bateman who’s the strange one. Co-Writer Guinevere Turner appears as one of these women, which I found interesting. Most of the time when people write themselves into the movies, they don’t write themselves in as murder victims, but that is the point of view of this movie. Turner’s character, for example, finally gets to call Bateman out on the way he is so proud of his own, aggressively pedestrian taste in music. “You like Whitney Houston?” she giggles. “You own Whitney Houston albums? More than one?”

Bateman’s weird musical speeches (about the blandest acts possible, like Huey Lewis and Phil Collins) show us just how great Bale’s performance is, a performance that justifiably raised him to the next level of stardom. He delivers them in such a way that we can tell that he isn’t just thinking of any of this right there. Did he memorize his little speeches from somewhere? Does he practice them in front of a mirror? Early on, he spends what feels like hours describing his morning skin care routine, sounding exactly like an advertisement. But it’s all in voiceover. Is he trying to impress the audience somehow? Does he know we’re here? 

Bale’s delivery throughout is utterly banal, until he starts to lose it. Then he really turns on the crazy, but in a believable way. One scene I had never watched before was the bit near the end where he calls a lawyer and confesses to all his crimes. Bale’s performance here is great. It’s very specific, not just scenery chewing, and he’s recognizably the same guy we saw soliloquizing about Phil Collins, the same guy who looks at himself flexing his muscles in the mirror while having a threesome, just that same guy having a breakdown. Some big movie stars tend to always play themselves, but Bale is not one of those actors. He plays a different character in every movie, whether that’s Dick Cheney or Batman. None of these characters, by the way, is Welsh like Bale himself, though you’d never know it.

That very explicit threesome, which rather than being gratuitous tells us a lot about Bateman, is what got the movie into trouble with the ratings board. The producers had to make cuts to the scene after the MPAA slapped the movie with the dreaded NC-17 rating, which would have prevented it being shown in most American theaters. After the cuts, the rating was reduced to R. You guessed right, in a movie with several different bloody murders, it was the sex scene that got the movie in trouble with the ratings board. However, the violence did draw the attention of other groups. Protests against on-screen violence rose in the aftermath of the Columbine Massacre in 1999, and several groups in different countries urged theaters not to show the movie. Harron and others connected with the film protested that the movie was a satire that wasn’t glorifying its violence, a claim I would probably agree with. But concerned citizens are not known for their subtlety when it comes to these things, and whether it was the protests or other things, American Psycho did not make a major impression on its release. It has since gained steam in the pop culture consciousness, as much through the performance of Bale, who has become a much bigger star since, and its essential weirdness, as for anything about the movie’s message or plot.

I would say the obvious comparison for this movie is not prominent slasher movies, but Fight Club, which came out the year before. Fight Club is one of my favorites, and it is also a bizarro anti-consumerism satire with an unreliable voiceover narrator who may or may not be telling us the actual truth about what’s going on in the movie, but I don’t think American Psycho works nearly as well. I do like the way this movie leaves things ambiguous. It’s not a puzzle for fanboys to figure out. There is no solution. Normally I would be all about that. But there’s something about American Psycho that leaves me a little cold in the end. It’s hard to explain, but I think it comes down to the fact that, while I don’t have to be able to “solve” your plot, but I do need to feel like I may be able to get a handle on what you’re trying to say and where you’re coming from. American Psycho isn’t just weird, it’s muddled, and I think that’s what bothers me.

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