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When Bret Easton Ellis’ book about the bloody ultimate in yuppie excess came out, in 1991, it was slotted into that strange space between being loathed and being ignored that still somehow vaults a work into becoming emblematic. Ellis had worn out his welcome among critics, if they had ever put out the mat for him in the first place, and the ’80s—never writ huger, sleeker, or crueler than in American Psycho—were just a hangover America wanted to forget. At the time, I reviewed the book and liked it, saying that the ideas were great even if the novel was, technically, unreadable. Ellis’ worst crime, then as ever, was not being a better writer.
But Mary Harron’s witty, satiric screen version of this story proves that perhaps Ellis tries to write the unwriteable, because the same mincing descriptions and leaden symbolism that languish miserably on the page crackle onscreen. As for the ideas embodied in the life work of Patrick Bateman, the ice-cool Wall Street predator with a violent secret hobby, they’re even better—unsparing observations virtually bounce off the screen, and the way Bateman’s psychology folds back in on itself provides a revelation The Sixth Sense’s M. Night Shyamalan would not have been ashamed of. If anything, the film version of American Psycho makes Ellis look downright prescient—I’m horrorstruck to think what eight years will do for Glamorama.
Harron finds her ideal Bateman in Christian Bale, a static pretty-boy actor with a surprisingly diverse resume, who does the cringing weenie as convincingly as the sleek cipher; neither characterization calls for an excess of humanity, but both are necessary to this role. “Bateman” is Ellis’ unsubtle nod in the direction of the original psycho, Norman Bates, but the bachelor’s motherlove has been subsumed into self-love—Bateman’s attention is directed inward because it has nowhere else to go. In these go-go ’80s, whether it’s the reality, the parody, or the memory of them as reflected in the (also ’80s-ish) over-the-top style, the expression of self substitutes for inner life. Everywhere Bateman goes—from his Wall Street office populated with zombie hordes of young men in the same hair gel and Brioni suits to ridiculous nouvelle-cuisine restaurants desperately trying to outsmart themselves from dish to dish—he’s confronted with an exhausting game of one-upmanship, and Bale manifests status-panic and Teflon arrogance in hilarious alternating ripples underneath his dead-shark eyes.
Various anxieties compete to distract the young men who rule this world. With computers and other new media running their first tests as full-time participants in the modern world, machine-worship reaches a hysterical peak. Bateman and his colleagues communicate via bulky, beige, 100-button proto-cell phones, and when at home, Bateman treats his hard body like a gleaming piece of tech, too, applying a parodic variety of brand-name emollients to his carefully tended skin and hair. He has a routine for everything, including physical upkeep, and its rhythms and specificity soothe him—a certain number of certain calisthenics, at which he pumps mechanically in his perversely minimal white-on-white luxury apartment. Status seems buyable and taste a matter of following the right herd, but status is not so much a level as a process—a Wall Street firm’s hierarchy can reshuffle according to the spare chic of each man’s business card, as in one scene that is a classic of corporate anxiety—in which the rules change along with the styles, and Bateman, for one, fears he can’t keep up.
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Caught between a sense of inadequacy and a sense of entitlement, Bateman searches frantically for the key to effortless access to this stuff—the key that will make him human. He has the right girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon as society fiancee Evelyn, a hysterical confection of whipped-cream blond curls and fluffy fur coat), goes to the right restaurants, and affects the right attitude of impermeable confidence; like every screen Everyman, though, he fears that none of this adroitness is enough to validate his existence. He’s right, of course, but Harron has no patience with the sensitive outsider—this Bateman is a figure of fun, an empty idiot whose vanity outweighs his value, and whose solipsistic posing is as delicious to watch as it is transparent.
Because he’s a sociopathic serial killer. Unlike every other screen Everyman, see, Bateman doesn’t hang onto his humanity to set himself apart from the slick-haired, sharp-suited swinging dicks at the office whose identities blur—in a running gag as funny in the film as it was in the book, no one can keep anyone else’s name straight. Rather, he transcends the need to do so. Bateman’s murderousness as an antidote to and ultimate expression of ’80s conformity is American Psycho’s tragic purpose. Already clinging ferociously to brand names and status symbols as place-keepers for his soul, Bateman grows positively rhapsodic about the meaning and purpose of such symbols when he’s tensing for a killing. The further his violence takes him outside of his quotidian repression, the more deeply he plumbs the significance of his bland, pleasant tastes. In deliriously funny scenes, Bateman the psyched-up host reels off ecstatic monologues on the virtues of accessible ’80s pop like Huey Lewis & the News’ “Hip to Be Square” while unsuspecting guests—hookers, usually, but also a colleague, whose killing leads to an investigation—listen politely.
Harron has cast aside the baroque specificities of the torture-murders, which were not written with enough finesse to cast them as parodic in the first place, and instead amped the menace of the story’s tone. It isn’t always clear what Bateman does to his victims, except in the case of the colleague, who gets it in the head with an ax that gleams as fetchingly as anything in Bateman’s swank digs. One wary prostitute, played by English actress Cara Seymour, survives an encounter with the limo-cruising client, and the next time he rolls by, she resists his offer, saying cryptically, “I had to go to Emergency after the last time.” (She gets in, nonetheless, and very bad things happen.)
The horror-movie stuff is all in the psychological limning of the empty, rather stupid antihero—not his predilection for ordering hookers into cheesy porn-fantasy scenarios but his predilection for posing and flexing in the nearest mirror while being serviced (a scene which I understand to have been cut from the already fat-free NC-17 version, although it’s a neat distillation of the film at its best—scary and funny and pathetic). It’s less frightening to hear Bateman’s colleagues banter about the worthlessness of women than it is to watch Bale’s fluid face process his character’s reactions—understanding, interpreting, deciding on a manner—and see him respond with a hearty guffaw. Bale’s chiseled jaw line is ferocious enough, but Harron, in her chief concession to bare-knuckle symbolism, obscures his eyes at least a dozen ways over the course of the film, toying with notions of concealment and transparency.
American Psycho isn’t a snapshot, but a journey, so Bateman comes under suspicion for the murder of his colleague and is trailed by a rumpled spaniel of a detective (Willem Dafoe) who may actually be dumber than the bankers, hookers, and socialites. As Bateman’s facade crumbles, the psychology gets shaky—Bale’s anguished crying jags are always oddly naked and squirm-inducing—and the characters’ fates careen toward some kind of resolution. But that resolution is one that could only take place in the empty ’80s, when consequences never really could get a purchase on behavior. It ends by reinforcing the status quo that Bateman sought to escape from, in his psychopathic way, and by murmuring pityingly that this system is unchanging and unchangeable.
Bateman is more of his time than he imagines and more of a victim than he understands. In the last scene, he sits numbly under a sign reading “This Is Not An Exit”—yes, that’s in the book and reads badly, but visually it works—and realizes, with what faint grasp he has, that he isn’t any different from the braying, Aramis-scented donkeys of this historical Pleasure Island. He never sought to do more with his mind than obfuscate his insecurity by justifying the widespread adulation for things banal and comforting—by becoming one with the ’80s that brought us the grotesque, cloying yuppie fantasies of Back to the Future and Phil Collins songs. But the hermetically sealed perfection of that era’s cherished objects and ideas are as impermeable as that brilliant steel ax-head, and Bateman—who is a fool to himself and unworthy according to the standards he covets—has access to none of these things. American Psycho is a delirious comedy of modern manners tossed off with knife-edge style and the sharp rhythms of a hit pop tune, one that tries on mask after mask before revealing itself as a tragedy crueler than anything its lead character can devise. CP