American Psycho featured

Hip to Be Scared: The Sharp, Satirical Pleasures of American Psycho

American Psycho poster

Christian Bale delivers a star-making turn in Mary Harron’s inspired adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel

I’ve always loved satire. It hardly paints an accurate portrayal of a species who are much more complex, sketching in black and white rather than stippling in shades of grey, but that doesn’t mean it’s not consistently on the money. Like everything in life there are degrees of subtlety, but even the most savage, overt forms of satire are grounded in reality, ironically critiquing human behaviour with the aim of improving it. Like a skilled caricaturist satire embellishes in a way that’s abstract. It also goes straight for the jugular, pinpointing our foibles with a deft precision that is vulgar, direct and borderline offensive, proving uncannily accurate, despite its often impressionistic nature.

The definition of satire is ‘the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.’ Those of you who’ve seen American Psycho, and I hope that’s all of you, will identify with that definition absolutely. You’ll also be familiar with a character who is the absolute personification of satire, and I mean that in the most caustic sense imaginable. There’s nothing subtle about Patrick Bateman, a truly magnificent Christian Bale hamming it up to delirious levels in his astonishing breakthrough role. A whimsical abstraction of author Bret Easton Ellis’ era-defining protagonist, Bale delivers a tour de force as the maniacal Bateman, illuminating the screen with every exaggerated gesture and withering bon mot. For those who have had the dubious pleasure of reading Ellis’ scathing indictment of Wall Street decadence, they’ll know that Bale is Bateman, from the immaculately-chiselled body and haughty self-regard to striking moments of banal emptiness and spontaneous frenzy. Simply put, he delivers one of the most remarkable performances of any era.

Incredibly — or not given the movie industry’s fickle nature and obsession with star power — it almost didn’t happen for Bale, and wouldn’t have if director Mary Harron, who had zero commercial pull given that her only other film, the critically acclaimed I Shot Andy Warhol, was a low-key affair that was mainly restricted to the film festival circuit, hadn’t fought for the actor tooth and nail. Though Bale was no stranger to the silver screen, striking gold early as the precocious lead in Steven Spielberg’s J. G. Ballard adapted, World War II epic Empire of the Sun, even landing 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, the future Batman’s adult career was relatively non-existent at the turn of the noughties, his brief fling with mainstream superstardom all-but forgotten. The fact that Empire of the Sun proved one of Spielberg’s commercial damp squibs probably helped him in the long-run. After all, how many famous child stars are able to make the transition in later life?

Bale and Harron

Bale’s lack of commercial clout almost cost him dearly. Without American Psycho, a movie that garnered an immediate cult following during its release on DVD and home video, who knows how his career would have panned out? But as far as Harron was concerned, Bale was the only choice to bring Bateman to the silver screen, and nobody, not even the movie’s financers, could 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, transforming an often oppressive dissection of bloodlust into a comparatively featherlight commentary on male vanity, but retaining Bale’s services was undoubtedly her most important leap of faith. So convinced was Harron of Bale’s suitability for the role that she 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.

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 wasn’t easy for Harron. Lion’s Gate even went as far as announcing DiCaprio’s involvement at Cannes in the summer of 1998, which came as a shock to both 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 film’s money men were steadfast in their reluctance to take a chance on Bale, countering 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]” that wouldn’t necessarily have suited the role meant nothing to those pulling the purse strings. They had decided on their headliner and were refusing to budge.

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,” she said, and for a short time it was DiCaprio himself at the helm, the actor responsible for drawing up a shortlist of possible replacements who were willing to make the part his, a list that featured everyone from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese. Ultimately, Harron was proven right, the actor who she claimed “brought too much baggage” quickly 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 following complaints about violent content and misogyny. According to legendary 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.

American Psycho Patrick Bateman

Harron remained quietly determined during the turbulence, holding onto the belief that Lion’s Gate would ultimately see the light. Bale showed similar determination, passing on several projects for a period of nine months with the belief that he and his directorial ally would ultimately be reunited for a project that had long seemed like destiny. Finally their “crazy” resolve was rewarded. After four months of giving her the silent treatment, Lion’s Gate reneged on their stance and once again offered Harron the film under the proviso that her budget did not exceed $10,000,000. By that juncture money was irrelevant from a creative standpoint. Harron had a distinct vision, and against all odds she’d managed to realise it without sacrificing her integrity. After more than a year of wrangling, DiCaprio was out and Bale was in. The version of Bateman we would all grow to love was finally a reality.

From the very opening credits that vision is served up, quite literally, like delectably drizzled haute cuisine, just the ticket for a yuppie culture in the throes of cocaine-induced appetite suppression, the same haughty miscreants who considered it en vogue to waste lavish amounts of cash on ludicrously fanciful dishes while their social inferiors suffered under Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics. That entire opening credits sequence, ironically serenading an elite bubble of privilege and gracefully hinting at the violence that will follow, is so exquisitely presented, and, fittingly, it’s merely the hors d’oeuvres. Bateman may be lovable based on the sheer contempt he displays for his delusional and pitiless peers, but he’s also a monster in the purest sense, beating an old vagrant and his dog to death for simply being poor, despite conflicting and fashionable speeches about tackling world hunger. One of the movie’s main critiques, at least until that twist ending, is that in a society fuelled by vacuous self-regard, you can behave however you want and people will be so caught up in themselves they’ll hardly notice.

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, colleagues and acquaintances 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 that 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 meticulously curated social façade. 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. Despite his occupational power, sense of self-importance and highbrow social clique, nobody is particularly interested in what Patrick has to say. For the most part, he may as well not exist.

American Psycho 3

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 closet homosexual and ‘tumbling dickweed’ Luis Carruthers spots Patrick dumping a corpse in the boot of his car, the true reason for his awed disbelief reveals itself when he suddenly asks “Where did you get that overnight bag?” “Jean-Paul Gaultier,” Bateman bluntly affirms, his haughty disdain hardly faltering.

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

Patrick Bateman

Bateman is the CEO of Pierce and Pierce on Wall Street and spends his days brooding behind dark shades while playing with his victims’ hair — to Chris De Burgh’s Lady in Red, no less. At night he does his best to avoid the cardboard lusts of vacuous fiancée, 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 Ronald 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.

Everything is a pantomime with Bateman ― his sense of fashion, his ideas, his beliefs, they’re all borrowed from the latest copy of GQ. Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner’s astute adaptation is nothing short of masterful, particularly during scenes in which our crazed antihero divulges his musical passions to his latest victims, highlighting the apparent influence of banal culture on our zany protagonist, 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, and making the right impression is everything. As Patrick himself puts it, you can always be thinner, look better, a perfectionism inspired by intensive body workouts accompanied by screaming soundbites from brutal slashers such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the world of Patrick Bateman, this is what goes on behind closed doors, the sickness that dwells beneath the ceremonial face masks and flawless manicures, and that’s merely scratching the surface.

Patrick Bateman Huey Lewis

Despite its comparatively muted and fanciful approach to violence, the movie still provides its share of startling instances. Most of them, like the moment when Patrick physically abuses two prostitutes, are shrewdly left to the imagination (in the book, that same incident is described in graphic detail). Others are far more visceral yet juxtaposed with equally startling comedic flourishes. Paul Allen’s abrupt hacking to pieces is the disturbing culmination of a scene that’s alive with parodic insanity, Huey Lewis and the News and a transparent raincoat creating a scene that is startlingly offbeat and queerly hilarious. Later, when Bateman impales a returning prostitute with a chainsaw, he’s naked barring some box fresh sneakers, a ludicrous image that somehow complements the film’s scariest, most horrifying scene. The image of the woman’s corpse bleeding out as a deranged Bateman screams down at her in triumph is absolutely harrowing. In the next scene, Bateman is sketching that same image on a restaurant napkin while his fiancée prattles on uselessly. Harron’s presentation is nothing short of ingenious.

As well as featuring some of the most quotable dialogue in cinematic history, text shrewdly culled from Ellis’ masterwork, 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 to 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. Witherspoon chews the scenery as Bateman’s superficial love interest 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 useless 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.

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

Patrick Bateman

Ultimately, of course, this is Bale’s movie. Finding inspiration from Tom Cruise (who ironically shares Bateman’s apartment building in Ellis’s novel) during a David Letterman interview in which the star “had this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes,” Bale went all in, sculpting a tanned, ripped protype with a pristine smile that, given the character’s underlying motives, projects such a disconcerting sense of dualism. Not only does he craft one of the most iconic monsters in all of horror, he does so with an expressionistic flair that was unprecedented, that remains unmatched to this very day. Di Caprio may have evolved into arguably the finest actor of his generation, but Bale’s sheer physical presence and Grinch-like whimsicality create pure magic. In fact, it’s a testament to his adaptability that he was able to move on and achieve the success that he did. For most actors, this would have been a one-shot deal, the kind of career-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.

It’s also a testament to Harron that such a despicable character could prove so lovable in the realms of horror fandom and beyond. For all the atrocities committed on our watch, in a weird and wonderful way we’re able to empathise with Bateman absolutely. Like anyone, rich or poor, he is a victim of his environment, a prisoner to image and affluence, the product of a soulless environment that is spiritually moribund beyond repair. Ellis, whose first novel Less than Zero, a nihilistic portrait of spiritually starved youth in early 80s Los Angeles that horrified a generation, was raised in such an environment, boldly revealing the inner rot beneath the outward perfectionism, and American Psycho is his finest achievement, a take-no-prisoners assault on the mindless, quietly insidious preoccupations of inherited privilege. You can fully see how someone like Bateman could completely lose his shit, be that internally in the recesses of his imagination or in an outward spree of spiralling bloodlust. Eventually, something has to give.

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 stylistically laborious descriptions while maintaining the inhumanly ritualistic obsessions of our saturated antihero. Bateman’s dialogue is presented with such sparsity and acerbic precision that it’s hard to imagine the movie in anyone else’s hands, and it would have been so easy to go the other way given the novel’s headline-grabbing controversy. The movie had been passed around since Pressman had acquired the rights back in 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’ most celebrated social critique, his version culminating with a musical number atop of the World Trade Centre. It’s a minor miracle 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 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 its true strength, and key to understanding a generation whose vast privilege and skewed sense of entitlement results in the kind of financial disparity ever prevalent in modern society. It’s 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 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 our time.

Director: Mary Harron
Screenplay: Mary Harron &
Guinevere Turner
Music: John Cale
Cinematography: Andrzej Sekuła
Editing: Andrew Marcus

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