Revisiting . . . American Psycho (2000)

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VHS Revival revisits Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel.


Although Christian Bale would go on to bigger and better things, his star turn as psychopathic yuppie Patrick Bateman was arguably the role that led him there, a performance that, in terms of cultural impact, he is perhaps yet to surpass.

It’s interesting to note that Mary Harron had to fight tooth and nail to keep her leading man. The director made a lot of smart choices in creating her magnus opus, one of them being her decision to focus more on the source material’s wit than its profoundly disturbing violence, but retaining Bale’s services was undoubtedly her most important leap of faith. So convinced of Bale’s suitability for the role, Harron purportedly refused to meet with a post-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio after he was offered the lead without her knowledge. A bold move on her part, but one that none of us are likely to regret.

Evelyn, I’m sorry. I just, uh… you’re not terribly important to me. -Patrick Bateman

Bale delivers a tour de force as the maniacal Bateman, illuminating the frame with every exaggerated gesture and withering bon mot, while acts of wanton violence startle and amuse in measures never before achieved. For those who have had the dubious pleasure of reading Ellis’s scathingly corrupt satire, they will know that Bale is Bateman, plain and simple, from the immaculately chiselled body and haughty arrogance, to striking moments of banal emptiness and a propensity for spontaneous frenzy. So good is he, in fact, that it is a testament to his adaptability that he was able to move on and achieve the success he did. For most actors this would have been a one shot deal, the kind of defining performance that is impossible to shake. I have read the novel both before and after I saw the movie, and when I consume those pages, it is Bale’s face that invariably consumes my imagination.

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In Patrick Bateman’s world, the company you keep, the restaurants you frequent and the business cards you procure are a matter of life and death, and people are so fickle they tend to mistake you for the next well-dressed clone to walk through the Wall Street lobby. This is a culture so self-absorbed one could probably get away with murder on their watch, or even mass murder as our blood-crazed antihero soon discovers — the demanding environment to which he belongs gradually melting his hard-edged social facade.

I like to dissect girls. Did you know I’m utterly insane? – Patrick Bateman

Bateman is the CEO of Pierce and Pierce on Wall Street, and spends his days behind dark shades playing with his victims’ hair. At night he does his best to avoid the cardboard lusts of his vacuous fiancee Evelyn, played by the gloriously stroppy Reese Witherspoon, while trying to squeeze a little surreptitious torture into his hectic schedule of pointless dinner dates and misguided political discussions. Patrick is a casual drug addict, a joyless philanderer, everything that Reagan’s America expects a man of his social standing to be. He hates women. He despises the poor. And those who constitute his social circle sicken him to the very core because they are the very reason for his existence. It is their moral sickness that makes him tick.

So widespread are the blasé attitudes, so far-reaching the ignorance and deep-rooted the sense of self-importance that the likes of Patrick Bateman are able to casually threaten people’s lives and openly discuss acts of murderous depravity without detection. When Patrick tells a barmaid that he is going to play with her blood she hardly flinches. When he tells young hotshot and future victim Paul Allen about his penchant for human dissection, he simply complements him on his tan before criticising him on his choice of restaurant, a seemingly innocuous remark which ultimately costs him his life. Later, after disposing of Allen’s corpse and packing his clothes for a phantom trip to London, Bateman does a half-arsed impression of his victim for his answering machine, safe in the knowledge that nobody will care enough to make a distinction. When ‘tumbling dickweed’ and gay admirer Luis Carruthers seemingly spots Patrick dumping a corpse in the boot of his car, the true reason for his concerned expression becomes apparent when he suddenly asks ‘Where did you get that overnight bag?’ leading a confidently disdainful Bateman to announce, ‘Jean-Paul Gaultier.’

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Another comedic highlight is the apparent influence of banal culture on our zany antagonist, who seems at pains to lend his environment depth and meaning where there simply isn’t any. Trying to communicate the importance of fatuous pop records is one of his most notable preoccupations, while meticulously planned outfits and New York Times inspired menus take precedence over any notion of personal taste or genuine opinion. So fast and fickle are high society’s spoon-fed trends that there is only an impression of life, while intensive body workouts are accompanied by screaming sound bytes from mindless porn and brutal slasher movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there. – Patrick Bateman

It is the psychotic quirks and erratic contrasts that Bale delivers so well that make the movie work, but also an adroitly adapted screenplay, which sheds page after page of laborious descriptions while maintaining the inhumanly ritualistic obsessions of our saturated antihero. His dialogue is lifted directly from the pages of the source material, but it is selected with such sparsity and executed with such acerbic and poignant precision that it is hard to imagine the movie in anyone else’s hands. It would have been so easy to go in the other direction. The novel is deliciously scathing, but so overwhelmingly graphic that it is hard to look past the violence and the controversy it raised, a response that would guarantee ticket sales if only out of morbid curiosity.

Do you like Huey Lewis and The News? – Patrick Bateman

The movie had been passed around since 1992, with Re-animator’s Stuart Gordon and legendary director Oliver Stone attached to the project at one time or another, the latter of whom Harron described as ‘the single worst person to do it’, while David Cronenberg’s version ended with a musical number atop of the World Trade Centre. It is perhaps a minor miracle then that a movie of such exquisite undertaking ever materialised, because in spite of the success and pedigree of those other directors, it took the lightly-treading approach of Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner to understand the true value of the novel. Ellis’s work was regarded as severely misogynistic upon its release by outraged feminists who could not look past the excessive and largely misunderstood violence. What Harron and Turner were able to do was strip back the layers of viscera and place a stronger emphasis on the novel’s mocking wit, which beneath the shocking extremities is Ellis’s true strength, and the key to understanding a generation whose vast privilege and skewed sense of entitlement results in the kind of financial disparity prevalent in modern society.

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It is quite fitting that after eight years of indecision from some of the industry’s most renown male filmmakers, after all the cries of sexism and depictions of alpha-male dominance, it was in fact a woman’s perspective which gave the material its true power, allowing us not only the gift of one of the decade’s finest low-key triumphs, but also one of the most memorable breakthrough performances I have ever had the pleasure to experience.

Cedric Smarts


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