VHS Revival Revisits Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel
Though Christian Bale would go on to bigger things, it was his turn as psychopathic yuppie Patrick Bateman that propelled him to the realms of A-list player. Bale would strike mainstream gold early as the precocious lead in Steven Spielberg’s J. G. Ballard adapted, World War II epic Empire of the Sun, his turn as a privileged school boy forced to fend for himself in a Japanese internment camp receiving rave reviews. Ironically, ‘Empire’ was one of Spielberg’s commercial damp squibs — at least relatively speaking — the film initially faring poorly with a US domestic gross of $22,238,696, and it would be decades before the actor reached the dizzy heights of Batman superstardom. Bale would continue to find work throughout his teenage years, honing his craft in productions of varying commercial success. He was even lucky enough to land a gig as the voice of Thomas in Walt Disney’s unbridled $346,100,000 smash Pocahontas during the animation studio’s second golden age, but as an onscreen face he would settle into secondary roles, finding his niche in other literary adaptations such as Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women and Christopher Hampton’s take on Joseph Conrad’s spy classic The Secret Agent.
Ironically, it was Bale’s lack of fame that almost cost him the role in yet another adaptation, and it’s interesting to note that filmmaker Mary Harron fought tooth and nail to keep her leading man. As far as Harron was concerned, Bale was the only choice to bring Bret Easton Ellis’ hugely controversial satire on Wall Street greed and social disengagement to the silver screen, and nobody, not even the movie’s producers, was about to convince her otherwise. 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 was she of his suitability for the role that 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.
It wasn’t easy for Harron, and Lion’s Gate even went as far as announcing DiCaprio’s involvement in the movie at Cannes in the summer of 1998, which came as a shock to both the actor and director. Speaking of the incident in an interview with The Guardian, Harron said, “When you’re trying to get your film financed, you’re up against a bunch of people who don’t care anything about that. Most of the time they don’t care if the cast is appropriate or not, and movies have sunk like that.” The problem was, Bale just wasn’t famous enough to please the movie’s money men, who would counter Harron’s claim that DiCaprio wasn’t ‘remotely right [for the part]” by throwing practically every Hollywood name at her. “We had a huge battle over it,” Harron continued. “They would’ve taken almost anybody over Christian.” The fact that there was something “very boyish about [DiCaprio]” meant nothing to those pulling the production strings. They had decided on their man and were refusing to budge.
Patrick Bateman: Evelyn, I’m sorry. I just, uh… you’re not terribly important to me.
In the summer of 1998, DiCaprio was on the verge of becoming the biggest movie star in the world, and that kind of fame brings phenomenal power, something that Harron quickly discovered first-hand. “Basically, as soon as I said I didn’t want to compromise my position, Lion’s Gate wanted me out,” said Harron, and for a short time it was DiCaprio himself at the helm, the actor responsible for drawing up a shortlist of possible replacements willing to make the part his, a list that featured everyone from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese. In the end, Harron was proven right, the actor who she claimed “brought too much baggage” running into problems with then director Oliver Stone, an artist renowned for his weak depictions of women and explicit nature who was now faced with the task of adapting a novel that had been pulled from the shelves due to its sensitive content. According to producer Edward R. Pressman, Leo was, “looking for solutions to things that weren’t problems when he first started,” an attitude that resulted in the project’s latest stagnation.
Harron had remained quiet during the turbulence, confident that Stone wouldn’t be able to handle themes of such controversy in a gentle enough manner, which was a valid assumption given this was a man who had once penned the brilliantly ferocious Scarface, and it’s easy to imagine the director giving material like Ellis’s excruciatingly violent novel the Natural Born Killers treatment. Bale had exhibited similar determination, passing on projects for 9 months with the belief that he and his directorial ally would ultimately be reunited for the project. Eventually, their “crazy” resolve was rewarded. After 4 months of giving her the silent treatment, Lion’s Gate reneged on their stance and once again offered Harron the project with the proviso that her budget did not exceed $10,000,000. Of course, by that juncture money was irrelevant. DiCaprio was out and Bale was in, something I think we can all be thankful for.
Bale delivers a tour de force as the maniacal Bateman, illuminating the screen 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’ scathing indictment of Wall Street decadence, they will know that Bale is Bateman, from the immaculately-chiselled body and haughty self-regard to striking moments of banal emptiness and spontaneous frenzy. So good is he as the film’s deranged antihero 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.
In 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 would likely get away with murder on their watch, or even mass murder as our blood-crazed killer soon discovers, the demanding environment to which he belongs gradually corroding his hard-edged social facade. 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 vacuous fiancee, Evelyn (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, an unbridled ‘Master of the Universe’ — everything Reagan’s America expects a man of his social standing to be. He hates women, he despises the homeless, and those who constitute his social circle disgust him because they are the very reason for his existence. It is their moral sickness that makes him tick.
Patrick Bateman: I like to dissect girls. Did you know I’m utterly insane?
So widespread are the blasé attitudes, so deep-rooted the sense of self-entitlement that the likes of Bateman are able to casually threaten peoples’ lives and openly discuss acts of depravity without detection. When Patrick tells young hotshot and future victim Paul Allen (Jared Leto) about his penchant for human dissection, Allen simply complements him on his tan before criticising his choice of restaurant, a seemingly innocuous remark that 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-assed impression of his victim for his answering machine, safe in the knowledge that nobody will care enough to make a distinction. When ‘tumbling dickweed’ Luis Carruthers spots Patrick dumping a corpse in the boot of his car, the true reason for his surprise becomes apparent when he suddenly asks ‘Where did you get that overnight bag?’ leading a disdainful Bateman to announce, ‘Jean-Paul Gaultier.’
American Psycho benefits from a phenomenal cast; a who’s who of Hollywood’s boldest and brightest. Leto is a blast as the excruciatingly disingenuous Allen, a hungry up-and-comer who is Bateman’s equal in every way, and perhaps even a little superior. The hugely underappreciated Matt Ross is even more impressive as the lovelorn and sycophantic Luis, the kind of GQ reject who forces Patrick to wash his gloved hands after attempting to throttle him and curtail his sexual advances. A brief and rewarding cameo from Willem Dafoe as an Inspector Goole styled detective is also a welcome addition to proceedings and vital in establishing the movie’s narrative ambiguities. Even better are the film’s female players. Reese Witherspoon chews the scenery as Bateman’s superficial love interest, Evelyn, with a performance that belies her years, and Samantha Mathis is a revelation as Patrick’s whacked-out mistress, Courtney Rawlinson, a defeated soul mourning her life as the trinket of closet homosexual Carruthers. A 26-year-old Chloë Sevigny, quietly submissive as Bateman’s naïve secretary Jean, is also hugely accomplished in a movie chocked full of delightfully engaging performances.
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
Harron and screenwriting partner Guinevere Turner’s adaptation of the source material is nothing short of masterful, particularly during scenes in which Bateman divulges his musical passions to his latest victims, highlighting 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, meticulously planned outfits and New York Times-inspired menus taking 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 bites from brutal slashers such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the world of Patrick Bateman, this is what goes on behind closed doors, and that’s merely scratching the surface.
It is Bale’s ability to deliver those psychotic quirks that allows Bateman to translate so smoothly to the screen, but just as important is the selective handling of the screenplay, which sheds page after page of laborious descriptions while maintaining the inhumanly ritualistic obsessions of our saturated antihero. Bateman’s dialogue is lifted directly from the movie’s source material, but is selected with such sparsity and acerbic precision that it is hard to imagine the movie in anyone else’s hands, and it would have been so easy to go in the other direction given the novel’s headline-grabbing controversy. The movie had been passed around since 1992, barely a year after the novel’s release, with Re-animator’s Stuart Gordon and the aforementioned Oliver Stone attached to the project at one time or another, the latter of whom Harron would describe as “the single worst person to do it”. Even the inimitable David Cronenberg had a pop at translating Ellis’ masterwork, his version ending 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 despite 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. 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 that 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 remarkable breakthrough performances of recent times.