American Psycho

Given the abundance of reviews on American Psycho, I can’t do justice to this film. However what I have always found particularly interesting is whether the events in the film take place in Patrick Bateman’s head or not. To begin with, Christian Bale does an outstanding job in portraying the pompous, narcissistic, hideously insecure, shallow and utterly deranged Bateman. While he mentions that Tom Cruise was his inspiration for his role I would almost say that Brent Spiner as Lore, Data’s evil twin brother in Star Trek The Next Generation, constituted a very similar precedent for Bale’s performance. There is certainly the same glibness, the same vocal tones, the same maliciousness and indifference to everyone and everything beyond himself that we see in Bale’s Bateman.

To return to the matter at hand, the question of reality in the film isn’t as clear cut as it seems. Before broaching this subject it’s necessary to mention the book. The film draws upon Brett Easton Ellis’s acerbic satirical novel while retaining the essence of its horrific events. In fact I believe this is an improvement on the work as having reading it almost a decade ago I found the constant descriptions of torture and murder to be soul sucking. I guess that was the effect he was trying to achieve in evoking the emptiness, repulsiveness and nihilism of the psychopathic lifestyle but in any case I digress; in short the film avoids a censor’s ban by being selective with the novel’s gruesome material.

So the question of whether it’s all in Bateman’s head of not? If we follow the idea that the film is faithful to the spirit of the book then Bateman does indeed commit the murders. The satire is in the fact that his friends are so immersed in their perfect lives, pursuits, careers and themselves that they ignore his acts. Similarly, the world he lives in is so superficially consumerist and economically stratified that he can murder with impunity. In a self absorbed, materialist society, it’s hardly surprising that Bateman’s activities are overlooked. In fact we can draw a connection between the narcissism of his social context and his psychopathic psychological makeup. Furthermore, everyone at the top looks the same, eats at the same restaurants and so forth. They are frequently mistaken for each other and this is a running theme both in the novel and the film. So again it’s not surprising that Paul Allen could be seen in London, thereby providing Bateman an alibi for his murder, or that Bateman is mistaken for Davis at the end. In addition both the director, Mary Harron and script writer Guinevere Turner state that the film does not solely occur in his head while Ellis himself asserts that if the events were imaginary the entire point of his book would be rendered moot. So there you have it. Bateman committed the murders.

Except…the film is not the book, it’s an adaptation and a certain ambiguity is introduced in the ‘feed me a stray cat sequence’ which Harron considers a directorial mistake. However, I think this is in fact a ‘happy accident’. If it is in fact real then it reflects how the psychopath’s violent fantasies spill over into reality. Perhaps Bateman did try to feed a stray cat to an ATM; does this suggest the following events are all imagined? This is certainly suggested when he stares at his gun in disbelief after firing it at a police car which subsequently explodes. Or maybe it is just a violent fantasy with no connection to reality whatsoever. The later scene with the realtor can be interpreted in two ways in light of this: 1. She covered up the murders which Bateman commits in Allen’s apartment so she can continue to do business (this would constitute a harsh, satirical condemnation of the profit driven excesses of unfettered capitalism) or 2. She is an aspect of Bateman’s psyche who is warning him off returning to that dark corner of his mind as represented by the apartment. In other words he needs a clean break so he can resume his violent fantasies, maybe it is a form of internal repression, a subconscious guilty warning of the consequences of actual murder and how he is lucky to have gotten away with it at least in his own head. William Dafoe’s Detective Kimball is another character which could be considered as a figment of Bateman’s imagination. He seems to be completely oblivious to Bateman’s obvious nervousness around him and the fact that he changes his story several times about his whereabouts on the night of Paul Allen’s disappearance, which raises the question. Also he seems to almost supernaturally second guess Bateman’s musical tastes when he shows him a Huey Lewis and the News album, the very one Bateman played when he maniacally dismembered Allen with an axe. Is this coincidence? Well Bateman’s reaction is telling in itself. Is Kimball his superego? His guilty conscience in an entirely fabricated fantasy world? Or maybe the murder was committed but Kimball is imagined? Kimball’s behaviour like the realtor’s is surreal to the extent that he may be a product of Bateman’s psyche. And then we have another stilted conversation scene with Jean (possibly the second strongest performance in the film after Bale’s by Reese Witherspoon). Jean is Bateman’s long suffering, infinitely patient secretary and the only character with whom he has anything approaching a human connection (he ends up deciding not to murder her). The weirdness of this scene lies in the fact that she’s unaware of the danger she’s in (for example, he holds a nailgun right behind her head but she doesn’t seem to notice this).

The cool element of this seeing the film in two ways is that it reflects how the audience identifies with Bateman, like in the way people might see Hamlet as partially mad in his treatment of Ophelia and Gertrude if they sympathise with him or a jerk if they think he’s feigning it. The film is a very dark comedy; Bateman is host to an array of eccentricities, character flaws and pompous self behaviour that make him something of a comic villain, almost likeable to an extent as the amount of users jokingly quoting him on the web attests. On the other the hand, the atrocities he commits are so chilling, so disturbing and gruesomely violent that he is an utterly detestable monster. It depends in other words on your reaction to the film and the character. I might suggest that if you have any inkling towards liking the character you might want to believe it all happened in his head. Certainly this would make his scenes of pathetic panicking somewhat more pitiful: in this case we’re basically watching a very mentally ill man having a nervous breakdown based on violent fantasies. However, if you see him for what he is and lean more towards the uncompromising satire of the novel then you might perceive him to have actually committed the murders. What is remarkable is that the film plays with your expectations and grants you the choice between two versions of what it presents, which in formal terms reflects Bateman’s disconnect from reality. So to return to Harron’s point about the feed me a stray cat sequence being a flaw in the film, I think if anything her ‘mistake’ is an inadvertent stroke of genius!

On the whole though, what is the film? Is it a satire, black comedy or a horror? I would argue that its status as a horror is overlooked to some extent. Yes the “I have to return some videotapes” line that Bateman uses to extricate himself from whatever social situation he finds awkward is funny, particularly near the end when Bale delivers it with such pompous precociousness. Or the scene in which Luis reveals a superior business card provoking Bateman to go into an envious rage; the triviality of what’s at stake is where the humour lies. However, we must not forget that this film is at heart, about an axe/chainsaw/knife wielding maniac who indulges in torture and murder on a massive scale.

Furthermore, the film is a critique on psychopathology, which is perfectly encapsulated in some of the opening dialogue of the film:

“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.”

This is analysis of the psychopathic mindset echoed in Bateman’s closing soliloquy.

“All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it I have now surpassed. My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this, there is no catharsis; my punishment continues to elude me, and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”

These lines are utterly chilling, disturbing and incredibly eloquent (they were taken from the book if I’m not mistaken). But what’s important is that they colour the otherwise darkly comedic tone with something altogether more serious, the satire becomes merged with the commentary on psychopathy, This is a subtle horror film in many respects, as nihilistic in its assessment of contemporary culture as its main character. The cinematic score in no doubt heightens this atmosphere as it is at once haunting and melancholically despairing. But then we do have classic 80s cheese music to reflect the film’s comic dimension.

So in conclusion, American Psycho is a film with strong themes, excellent social satire and generically complex. Moreover, you have great performances from Dafoe and Witherspoon. Bale of course puts in an exemplary performance and would reprise shades of this character when playing another rich asshole/potential psychopath, Bruce Wayne, in Nolan’s Batman films. American Psycho is a film that lends itself to many interpretations and this for me is why it’s classic work that still invites discussion today.

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