Bright Lights Film Journal

American Psycho: If looks could kill, this dude wouldn’t need a blade

The year is 1987. Wall Street smoothie Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is preparing to meet the new day. As he anoints his buff-enough-for-Bay-Watch bod with an endless series of unguents, emollients, lubricants, and conditioners (who does he think he is, a movie star?), Bateman fills us in via the voiceover that he’s a hollow man. There’s nothing inside. Later, he 1) insults his dear sweet secretary (Chloe Sevigny), who loves him despite the fact that he treats her like dirt; 2) gets into endless one-upmanship contests with his sleazy look-alike think-alike act-alike Wall Street buddies over business cards, suits, haircuts, luggage, restaurants, watches, and cars; 3) browbeats his pill-popping, booze-guzzling dim-bulb blonde bitch of a fiancé (Reese Witherspoon, who probably should have known better); 4) browbeats his pill-popping, booze-guzzling dim-bulb blonde bitch of a mistress (Samantha Mathis); 5) hacks a coworker to death with an ax; 6) murders a homeless man (a black homeless man!); 7) squishes the black homeless man’s dog! (his dog!); 8) murders half a dozen prostitutes; 9) murders four cops; 10) murders an old lady; 11) shoots a cat!1

Never let it be said that liberals can’t carry a grudge. Here we are, hip-deep in the Year 2000, with almost eight years of Bill Clinton under our belt, so to speak, and they’re still pissed about the eighties. American Psycho, based on the bloodstained novel by Bret Easton Ellis,2 is the latest assault on the Reign of Reagan.

When Ellis wrote American Psycho back in 1991, he probably had no higher motive than to write the most disgusting, and thus the most profitable, book he could imagine. Unfortunately for Ellis, he overshot the mark. It turned out that filling a book with appalling depictions of misogynistic torture wasn’t the shortest road to fame and riches.

Despite its excesses (ultimately, of course, because of them), American Psycho proved too hot not to handle. Director Mary Harron tries to square the circle by holding onto the buzz created by Ellis’s woman-hating bloodfest while adding a soupçon of satire. Almost inevitably, she falls betwixt and between.

In scripting the film, Harron and writing partner Guinevere Turner “borrowed” heavily from Tom Wolfe’s monster novel Bonfire of the Vanities,3) apparently failing to notice that Wolfe’s contempt for women, while less bloody than Ellis’s, is equally pervasive. Virtually every woman in American Psycho is as dumb as she is blonde, and as blonde as she is dumb. (There is one obnoxious upper-class brunette, who says things like “Where do you summer? Southampton?”)4

While trashing all the women in the picture, Harron and Turner are strangely inept at dramatizing what Harron describes as her central thesis: “The society is so obsessed with surface, that as long as Patrick obeys all these rules about wearing the right suit and going to the right restaurant and being seen with the right women, no one is going to look any further.”

But why should anyone look any further, when the police (even dumber here than the Italian police in The Talented Mr. Ripley) never investigate Patrick? Do we have a moral duty to suspect our friends of being serial killers unless they can prove otherwise? Should we make a point of prying into their lives to see what they’re up to?

Instead of investigating real moral issues, Harron and Turner spend their time making fun of Patrick. Not only is he a serial killer, an anti-Semite, and a homophobe, he’s a chump. He’s a loser at the office. No one knows who he is. He can’t get a table at a “real” restaurant. He has terrible taste in music.5 And he can’t dance.

The film constantly ties itself in knots by trying to have it both ways. To show us that success is “hollow,” we see hollow Patrick a roaring success at 27, a vice president at a major Wall Street firm, with a six-figure salary and a fabulous apartment. But to show us that Patrick is “hollow,” we see that he really isn’t a success. He’s not respected. He’s not a player. He only thinks he’s cool. Hollywood values, which deify success as much as Wall Street values do, keep pushing out the “real” values that Harron and Turner pretend to hold.

Thrillers, of course, don’t have to make sense to work. There are huge holes in The Talented Mr. Ripley,6 but the atmosphere of intoxicating privilege that director Anthony Minghella creates half justifies poor Tom Ripley’s crimes. And the sun-buttered trust-fund babies that he kills, what do they know of life? Don’t they deserve to die?

The Talented Mr. Ripley, with all its faults, gives an evocative picture of the power of money to corrupt. American Psycho, which would like desperately to do the same, falls flat on its face. Patrick is a capitalist: therefore he is evil. If you work on Wall Street, you will be rude to your secretary; you will like Huey Lewis and the News; and you will like to cut women’s heads off.

  1. The cat I don’t mind so much. []
  2. Ellis broke into the big time at age 23 back in 1983 with Less Than Zero, a novel about Beverly Hills rich kids ODing on sex and drugs. It was made into a film in 1987, starring (of course) Robert Downey Jr. According to his publisher, “Glamorama, Ellis’s latest vehicle, ventures deep inside the world of celebrity, a world that jet-sets from coast-to-coast, from champagne flute to vial of cocaine, all the while sacrificing humanity for image.” Don’t you hate people like that? I sure do. []
  3. The film version of Wolfe’s book, directed by Brian de Palma and starring Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, and Bruce Willis, was itself intended to be the ultimate “The Eighties Suck” film. Instead, it crashed and burned in a mighty collision of superstar egos. (Critics gallantly blamed the entire failure of the production on Griffith’s decision to get a boob job in mid-shoot. []
  4. Don’t worry. She gets hers. []
  5. Harron was a rock critic in the eighties, and obviously has some scores to settle. []
  6. Among other things, the film can’t decide if Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is a dear sweet boy who just wants to sit in a beautiful room and play Bach or a cunning sociopath. I suppose the idea is that we see him learn to become a cunning sociopath, but instead he seems to switch back and forth, according to the needs of the plot. In any event, I suspect that sociopaths start wising up to the ways of the world when they’re about 10, rather than 22. []