by Thom Yee
So it’s October. In fact, it’s the last Saturday in October. And it turns out there’s this thing called Halloween that only happens in and tends to dominate October, and, because of this event, horror movies are at their most popular in October. And we haven’t reviewed a single one. Not even close. Though there are some who would label American Psycho a horror movie. Technically.
I saw American Psycho during a very formative part of my life, and in the intervening years between then and now, it’s become an important part of who I am and how I see the world.
Believe it or not, there’s a contingent of people out there who would hear a statement like that and think there must be something wrong with people like me. That we must be obsessed with violence, with graven imagery, with the mutilation of humanity; that we must have some inhuman need to see the worst happen to the people around us and that our cold distance, our murderous stares must be fed by our disdain for all the glories the world has built around us — without us. Glories that we couldn’t begin to understand.
But you and I… we know better.
Some things you should know before reading this review:
- If your question begins with, “Have you read…”, the answer from me will almost invariably be “No.”
- This is a movie review. This review does not pertain to the book, nor will it make any intentional reference to the book.
- Don’t ever tell me American Psycho the book was better. Not if you want to keep your spleen.
American Psycho is about a lot of things. Some people will tell you it’s about narcissism. Some people will tell you it’s about psychosis. Some people will tell you it’s about excess as typified by the ‘80s. And while it’s clearly, obviously about all of those things, I prefer to look at it as a study of the failings of the world to understand and help one man.
Patrick Bateman is a Wall Street executive, one of a seemingly endless parade of vice-presidents at Pierce & Pierce – Mergers & Acquisitions. He believes in taking care of himself. In the mornings, if his face is a little puffy, he’ll put on an icepack while doing his stomach crunches. In the shower, he uses a water-activated gel cleanser, then a honey-almond body scrub. Then he applies a leave-on herb mint facial masque before using an aftershave lotion with little or no alcohol because alcohol dries your face out and makes you look older. Then moisturizer, then an anti-aging eye balm, followed by a final moisturizing protective lotion. He spends most of his work days making lunch and dinner reservations at restaurants like Crayons and Arkadia and Flutie’s Pier 17. Rumour has it he was once even seen at Texarkana, though it must have been for the cilantro crawfish gumbo, which is, after all, the only excuse one could have for being in that restaurant. In any case, at 27-years-old, he’s a financial success, a social climber, and a connoisseur of style and popular music. But his nights are a little different, as he gives in to his violent, murderous urges.
American Psycho is absolutely a winning film if you’re willing to take it all in. As I’ve said (or implied) many times before, it comes down to tone more than anything else. Perfectly narrated in voiceover, Christian Bale’s Bateman absolutely sells every line he’s given, each underscoring the sheer, overstated absurdity of the world he lives in. On a dinner date with his supposed fiancé, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon): “I’m on the verge of tears by the time we arrive at Espace, since I’m positive we won’t have a decent table. But we do, and relief washes over me in an awesome wave.” In the midst of covering up his murder of Paul Allen, a business rival at P&P: “There is a moment of sheer panic… when I realize that Paul’s apartment overlooks the Park and is obviously more expensive than mine.” And soon after, he notes: “My nightly bloodlust has overflown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. My mask of sanity is slipping…. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why.”
But I know why. Bateman has his elaborate morning routines, his stylish clothing and accessories, and his nearly encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary [‘80s] pop music because, as he said, he believes in taking care of himself. And while he’s not deluded enough to expect everyone around him to have the discipline to take care of themselves to the same degree, he’s constantly let down that they can’t be trusted to do the right thing. It’s the type of rage we all feel at certain times, only escalated and constant as Bateman realizes he’s nearing the top of the heap, but will never reach his goal as his contemporaries fail to notice him for who and what he is: their better. This is perhaps never more strongly embodied than in the following scene:
It’s telling that the world around him is so self-concerned, so self-obsessed, that it would allow Bateman not only to operate, but to flourish in his killings, a world that so wilfully ignores his actions because it has only itself to think about and too much of its own sh*t to deal with. A world built entirely on artifice, on the surface, as Bateman himself notes towards the film’s conclusion: “inside doesn’t matter.”
Today, Bale has gained a reputation as an actor’s actor, as evidenced both by his dramatic transformations between roles (see: his 130 lb. weight loss in The Machinist, shot just before Batman Begins) and because of his infamous on-set outbursts. American Psycho is one of his earliest fully adult roles (Bale having been a prominent child actor), and here he is absolutely Patrick Bateman in a way and to a level that can colour your view of him in every other role he’s taken since. The vacancy in his eyes (but not behind them), his attempts to help those less fortunate (before realizing he has nothing in common with them), the madness in his presence as he explains that you can’t bleach Cerruti bed sheets. He’s a tragic character in that he really doesn’t fit in despite his apparent ability to do so, his only discernible thoughts or emotions being disgust for everything around him.
Supported by a strong, almost all-star cast, American Psycho’s characters perfectly embody each of their roles, be it Luis Caruthers (Matt Ross), the biggest doofus in the business; his fellow P&P vice-presidents who do nothing at work, conduct affairs with each others’ wives and fiancées, and complain about restaurants not having good bathrooms to do coke in; and even his optimistic assistant Jean (Chloe Sevigne) who makes the cryptic and potentially illuminating discovery of Bateman’s day-planner. By far my favourite supporting character is Timothy Bryce, played by Justin Theroux (better known today as soon-to-be Mr. Jennifer Aniston), who brings such a predatory nature to his self-obsession that even when feigning world interests he comes off as an absolute shark:
In its meaning, American Psycho is blessedly ambiguous, and a big part of that is Bale’s narration. It’s a storytelling device that works perfectly for the film, not only as a window into who Patrick Bateman is, but because it draws into question the veracity of everything we see in the film. By the end you can’t draw any firm conclusions — did Bateman really kill all of those people? Did that police car really explode? Did any of the events really happen? Or is what he’s done outweighed by this world’s need to ignore such horrors in the name of continuing to turn a profit? The film doesn’t try to pin down any one meaning, and purposely provides an oblique ending, concluding that everything Bateman has told us “has meant nothing.”
Whether or not you interpret American Psycho as literal or figurative, metaphorical or plain, what should be clear is that there are no true heroes, villains, winners, or victims in this world. The closest we have to a hero is Bateman himself, a character who, but for his lack of self-control, at least holds himself to a highly rigid level of morality. He’s too good for this world; he expects too much of himself and, therefore, those around him. His outbursts are only a natural extension, only that which needs to occur for him and anyone like him just to exist. His self-obsesssions, his incessant need for pornography, the restaurants, the music, the fashion — all symptoms of a man who can feel himself being pulled further down as he attempts to ascend to the greatness he knows is inside of himself.
It’s also about killing hookers with chainsaws. And you and I… we knew that too.
American Psycho final score: 9
On the Edge
–Dexter totally ripped off American Psycho’s opening sequence.
-I actually have the same Barcelona chair Bateman has in his living room — the American Gardens building on the 11th floor — only I put mine in the front foyer of my ninth story downtown apartment. They’re really not well-suited for living spaces.
-As impenetrably superficial as the business card scene is, I really did prefer Paul Allen’s card.
-“What Yale thing? Well, I think for one, he was probably a closet homosexual who did a lot of cocaine… that Yale thing.”