American Psycho, like the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel that informs it, is based on the premise that consumer culture (the late-’80s urban American variety) has so compromised our humanity that our least offensive characteristic is our apathy. At our worst, we’re greedy, vain, covetous and incurious little ids, and the shinier the surface, the scarier the marrow it conceals. The movie’s thesis is simple: He who lives for the exterior has no interior. A lot of ink has been spilled about American Psycho’s attack on Reagan-era values and mindless consumer trends, but that ink describes only the picture’s foreground. The foul effects of luxury have always been one of the most common targets of satire (along with hypocrisy), and neither Reagan nor the 1980s can claim a patent on the behavior or its critique. Look back to Juvenal and Horace, then skip ahead to Alexander Pope and every other Augustan poet, and American Psycho’s ancient pedigree, once exposed, gives the film or novel even more breadth than it seems to present at first glance. Despite its place in a long tradition, Ellis’ book is one of those works which, once written, filled an absence in the canon that was waiting to be filled. It picks up the complaints of Pope, Austen and Waugh and does away with their politeness, replacing the silver fork with the Ginsu knife and presenting a world where bodies stuffed damply into sports bags can’t raise eyebrows in a public defined by material rather than human value. It’s not a new premise by any means, but Ellis and Mary Harron (who directed the film version in 2000) take a great old saw and run it into soft bodies until they burst in a gore-shower that shocked us out of our daze at the tail-end of the last century.
American Psycho the novel caused controversy even before it was published, and the same difficulty plagued the film production, which went through several slated directors (Stuart Gordon, David Cronenberg, Oliver Stone) and leads (Johnny Depp, Billy Crudup, Leonardo DiCaprio) before Harron and Bale secured deals. At the time, neither was Hollywood A-list, and they had to fight for their jobs when studio suits tried to A-list the project. The musical-chairs name game that surrounded the production fuelled the controversy already belching flames out of the political trenches over the novel’s gruesome content; critics who believe that the representation of crime in art always equals the endorsement of those crimes were vocal in their condemnation of American Psycho. The film version tames the book’s sadism and focuses its energies on depicting the hero’s world of Kiehl’s lotions and nouvelle cuisine and prestigious Wall Street sinecures.
Bale is irreplaceable as Patrick Bateman, a perfectly cut and dressed twenty-something born into wealth and keen on making sure everyone knows it. The film’s production design is as perfect as Bateman’s $500 haircut: the sleek apartments full of modern art and designer furniture but devoid of hominess; the collections of expensive cosmetics owned by a character who predates the term “metrosexual” but embodies it completely; the restaurants and clubs that subsist on buzz — going nova the day they open, then dying two months later, poisoned by their own trendiness. Bateman and his entourage compete for uniqueness in a market that thrives on reproduction — they one-up each other with hard-to-get reservations at trendy spots, buy the same designer labels, wear the same Oliver Peoples tortoise-shell glasses, and find whatever spark of individual flight they can in drifts of cocaine. Their exteriors are so formed by the same brands of luxury products that the characters constantly misidentify one another; aspect lives in hair, suit and shoes, not in face or personality (this running gag enables Bateman to conceal the murder of a rival who, like Bateman himself, has a hundred clones lounging around New York City and London).
This competition for the best suit, the most expensive apartment, and the hottest reservation is where the film’s black humor gestates. Bateman has panic attacks when someone one-ups him with better style or a larger price-tag. The best scene in the whole movie boils this anxiety down to its essence: Bateman and co-workers draw business cards from silver holsters and compare paper quality, color tone and typeset. He who can boast the most understatement wins — an exquisite paradox exquisitely rendered, and Bale’s nervous sweat is the seepage of an ego burst to juices. Out of his envy springs epic self-loathing that finds an outlet in the slaughter of vagrants, sex workers, and rivals. Bateman’s psychosis is brought on by the confines of material conformity, and his killings are violent bouts of self-expression. He defines his humanity in hedonism and accepts that “there is no real me” under the illusion. His grasping at identity is made even more slippery by the fact that we’re never sure if the murders actually take place, or if they simply dance around inside the hero’s own mind. Bateman believes they do, and his belief is persuasive; he even announces a parallel between his consumer consumption of designer products and his cannibalistic consumption of women’s bodies. Between the moments of homicidal bombast that disturbed so many critics are dozens of hilarious comments on conformity, product branding, excess, and what passes for Thought in a culture distracted by designer goods. Bateman’s critique of modern mainstream music, for example, isn’t a subtle satirical device, but it’s hard not to laugh when he praises Phil Collins’ solo career over the works of the “too arty and intellectual” Genesis, and extols Huey Lewis and the News as “the greatest American artists of our time.” His sober embracing of Belinda Carlyle or KC and the Sunshine Band over punk, jazz or even Genesis is an easy way to sketch Bateman’s enslavement to trends and advertising.
I’ve flapped my gums a lot about the film’s themes and gleaming surface, because I think they’re the best things about American Psycho, which is, for me at least, an imperfect but enjoyable film held together by a great satirical tenor, and by a spot-on art direction that faithfully recreates a certain New York lifestyle circa 1988. Like I Shot Andy Warhol (Harron’s earlier go at provocative material), its execution seems overwhelmed by challenging subject matter, and something doesn’t quite gel. But if I’m suggesting that Harron’s direction isn’t as firm as I’d like it to be, I’m talking only by a matter of degrees. She isn’t an actors’ director — many of the performances seem inorganic both in themselves and in their collusion with other actors, and I don’t accept the argument that the jerky interaction between characters is meant to reflect their emptiness. Samantha Mathis as Courtney, for instance, manages to layer her vapid and Xanaxed heiress with incredible richness, and Bale builds one of the most substantial “shallow” characters ever put to screen. The rest of the cast, for the most part, bump against one another like hesitant, clumsy lovers, and the same clumsiness hampers the editing and camerawork. A few scenes look like they were interrupted mid-dialogue, as if Harron kept changing her mind about their purpose (it’s a filmmaking reality, but it’s usually handled a little more smoothly in productions of this scope). And Harron’s desire to transplant some of Bateman’s monologues from the novel into the film results in a weird pastiche — I’m not comparing novel to film but rather critiquing the filmmakers’ choices about how to transition from one medium to another; Bale extolling the cultural value of Sussudio as he preps sex workers for slaughter feels a little square-peg-in-round-hole forced. Trying to reproduce certain kinds of narrative onscreen is a thankless task, and Harron does what she can. These monologues are crucial joints in the satire’s backbone, but they’ve been strained into an unnatural posture. It’s as if the director’s anxiety about the controversy over her subject matter resulted in over-rehearsal and a lot of second-guessing of her own abilities.
Still, the subject matter rises above these minor technical issues (which won’t even bother some viewers, and might even add substance to the experience). And it’s a great film for people-watching with its mix of wannabe edgy types and wholesome studio stars: in addition to Bale and Mathis, Willem Dafoe, Justin Theroux, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon and Chloe Sevigny parade around onscreen (and Guinevere Turner, who co-wrote the script with Harron, emits fantastic Who’s That Girl? charisma in her brief scene as Elizabeth). However jumbled the cast and structure, though, American Psycho is a necessary satire. It portrays the new libertine in a comedy of manners that, per tradition, reproduces “correct” social behaviors and values only to expose how completely undermined these values are by private, secretive behaviors. Regarding the film’s place in that tradition, Harron gets everything right. – Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s Pajiba Blockbusters series, on February 28, 2009.)