The Film Canon: American Psycho (2000)

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The film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel “American Psycho” went through a long process of “development hell.” At one time, Oliver Stone was set to direct the film with Leonardo Dicaprio as the lead character, Patrick Bateman. Eventually, the project found its way into the hands of Mary Harron and actor Christian Bale. As someone who read the book, the movie follows a similar story but Harron puts a unique spin on the psychosis of the main character. Bateman doesn’t kill entirely out of blood lust, but out of compulsive vanity and spite for others. It’s a nontraditional slasher film, given that it takes place in upscale New York. Instead of a common slasher film message such as abstinence, it warns that killers are among us and appear just like you and me on the surface.

Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a New York stock broker living in an expensive penthouse. His life mainly consists of routine; waking up, exercising, applying facial products to maintain a slick youthful appearance, working, etc. He butts heads with his coworkers over simple mundane issues and is quite the womanizer. Underneath his professional exterior lies the mind the title suggests. He acts out in desperation to receive attention and break the mold. He’s a misogynistic narcissist; most of his victims are women, although men don’t slow him down. Essentially, this is all you need to know because it’s hard to fully describe the plot of American Psycho without giving away key details. It’s a character study into the twisted mind of the main character. It’s hinted that the various events of the film are all inside Bateman’s head, grisly murders being a representation of him splurging revenge fantasies on a repressed corporate society. The movie is not clear on this necessarily, which is sure to spark many debates between viewers.

Patrick Bateman is one of the most fascinating characters of the new millennium. He’s not a mindless killing machine like Jason or Michael Myers. He’s well-spoken and fancies himself as sophisticated. He kills as if it’s a hobby to him, an obsession that keeps him in check. At the same time, he even quips that he’s mentally ill and embraces his compulsions. He blasts the people who annoy him with furies of anger, rage and greed. When he murders, it’s very gruesome and inventive with the weapons utilized. Whether they’re in his head or not, the purpose is twofold, to show his mental disintegration and to vent his frustrations. The violence is one of the main sources of the film’s controversy. Blood, severed limbs and grimy sound effects are all abundantly present within the film. It’s only for those with strong constitutions, which is why this film is not for everyone.

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While insanity is a key theme of American Psycho, there is a great deal of underlying sexual motivation behind Bateman’s actions. Consider a scene in which Bateman and a fellow businessman take turns showcasing their business cards. Bateman goes in-depth about the finish, engraving and paper thickness. If you look at it in a certain context, these discussions sound like aphorisms. He rivals with his coworkers for seats in restaurants, clothing and other forms of wealth. It’s a characteristic of someone with a mental disorder, but if you dig a little deeper, it could represent his sexual inadequacy.  He releases any sexual tension during his various scenes of intercourse with prostitutes or acquaintances. Those actions offset the underlying lack of true love in Bateman’s world. Like all of his expensive trinkets, his sex life is a metaphorical mask for any repressed feelings he possesses.

Bale, while an established respected actor, catapulted himself into mainstream roles with American Psycho. Bateman is slightly toned down from the novel, making him remotely identifiable. In the film, Bale masterfully jumps back and forth between being frighteningly manic and humorously pathetic. Throughout the course of the film, Bateman because more and more mentally unstable but Bale makes the shifts believable and linked together. It’s not an unexpected jump when he calls his lawyer in hysterics confessing to countless murders. Nevertheless, it is an unsettling sequence.

Bale and the screenwriters combined their efforts to add a great deal of morbid humor to the film. Some of the funniest scenes showcase Bateman’s vast knowledge of music. He frequently delivers pompous monologues about Huey Lewis and Whitney Houston right before someone is killed. Waiters at restaurants nonchalantly read off the specials like lethargic students reading off of presentation notecards. The film is invoked with ’80s excess and exaggerations ranging from the music to the set pieces. The tagline from the 1987 film, Wall Street, “greed is good,” perfectly describes the attitudes of the men in the movie. They all look the same to themselves and the people around them. In a great running gag, Bateman is frequently mistaken for a coworker, (Jared Leto) proving that no one wants to look below the surface.
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American Psycho is effective as both a horror film and cultural satire. Despite drawing out the excess of the 1980s for most of the satirical elements, the film holds a surprising amount of similarities to modern-day. With stock prices constantly on the rise and billionaires being more and more common, the world remains as obsessed about wealth as it did back then. Sure, things have changed, but society still has the need for consumption. Many look to plastic surgery to improve their appearance and expensive jewelry to pep up their spirits. Like Patrick Bateman, these actions are essentially masking the truest form of human nature.

Matt is a 21 year old film buff and recent graduate from The University of Rhode Island. Growing up in a small town in the smallest state, Matt began developing a taste in film and general geekdom at a young age. After years of watching various DC and Marvel animated television shows as a boy, Matt has become quite the afficinado in the realm of comic books. Towards the end of middle school, Matt began delving into the world of film by watching anything he could get his hands on. Nowadays, his tastes range from classic film noir and the mindbending works of David Cronenberg to the latest trends on the independent scene. Don't worry; he's still one for the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or DC animated adventure. Comics aren't the only source of literature Matt enjoys. He can sometimes be spotted reading the works of Stephen King or even the plays of William Shakespeare. As an aspiring film critic and screenwriter, Matt is always looking for inspiration and new ideas.