American Psycho is a 2000 film that throws-back to the go-go yuppie year of 1987. That’s the year that Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street premiered, giving the world the suitably reptilian-monikered Gordon Gekko. Director Mary Harron and actor Christian Bale borrow Gekko’s designer suits, sunglasses and slicked-back hair for American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Bateman also has all of Gekko’s avarice and cunning, but he is also a bloodthirsty serial killer – or is he?
Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is an investment banker who’s planning a wedding with his fiancée, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), when he’s not swimming with the sharks at the office, or snorting lines with his fellow financiers in the back stalls of the swankiest restaurant restrooms in Manhattan. Bateman’s daily workouts keep his body in flawless condition, and his grooming rituals and designer label lifestyle complete his mask of perfection. In fact, Bateman is perfectly crazy, and as he explains to Evelyn in the back of a taxicab, “…I want to fit in.”
Bale’s performance is intensely balanced between calculated realism and a self-conscious outrageousness. At times Bale goes way out as Bateman, and barely hits the brakes before stopping just short of Nicolas Cageville. The tension Bale winds into this coiled characterization is absolutely thrilling to experience, and it’s only one of the strong performances from a cast that includes Witherspoon’s beautiful, bratty Evelyn, Willem Dafoe as the deferential detective Donald Kimball, and Jared Leto’s turn as the douchey and doomed Paul Allen.
American Psycho has become a contemporary classic because of its unforgettable set pieces: the business card scene is one of the best sequences you’ll ever see in a film about corporate climbing, and the actual slaughter of Allen delivers an unforgettable combination of outrageous black humor and splashing crimson gore. But Harron ties these scenes together into a riveting whole, and manages her satirical commentary by letting the story’s outrageous premise carry that weight – the director doesn’t have to resort to heavy-handed preaching about cannibalistic capitalism when she can just point a camera at a woman’s head wrapped in plastic in Bateman’s refrigerator.
Harron and Guinevere Turner adapted the screenplay from Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel. Much of the humor and horror in the book is heightened by Ellis’ writing Bateman as an unreliable narrator – readers are never sure if Bateman is actually doing the horrible things he’s describing or merely thinking about or even hallucinating them. In both the book and the film we know Bateman is crazy, but is he seeing-things-and-hearing-things-crazy or naked-chainsaw-rampage-crazy? Harron deserves a lot of credit for guiding Bale’s edgy performance, and Harron and Turner’s adaptation overcame a lot of the criticisms of misogyny and pointless violence suffered by Ellis’ novel. Early in the film’s development David Cronenberg was brought on board to direct, and when Lionsgate bought the film’s worldwide distribution rights in 1997, Harron and Bale were briefly kicked off of the project in favor of the team of Oliver Stone and Leonardo DiCaprio. Cronenberg’s icy exploring or Stone’s bombast could have made American Psycho a much different film, but you’d have a tough time convincing me either would have made a better one.
The first time I watched American Psycho I saw it at a friend’s house in St. Louis. As soon as the movie ended we immediately played it again. I can’t remember another time when I did that after seeing a film for the very first time. That’s the kind of behavior I’d associate with an old favorite – I must’ve watched Jackie Brown about 50 times after it popped up on Netflix several years ago. American Psycho automatically seems familiar because it’s not just a movie about the bankrupt values of the 1980s; it’s also about the trappings of that decade: ladies shoulder pads, Walkman cassette players, massive mobile phones, cocaine, new wave music, feathered hair, and Huey Lewis and the News. I was just out of elementary school in the 1980s and Bateman has a lot in common with Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton character from the television show Family Ties, and Bateman even makes a hilarious reference to Bill Cosby’s 1980s TV doctor, Cliff Huxtable. Of course Cosby’s been revealed to be a sexual predator behind those rolling eyes and fuzzy sweaters from three decades ago, and maybe that’s what really makes Bateman and Psycho seem so familiar after all.
American Psycho screens at the Belcourt at midnight on Friday, April 21, and Saturday, April 22. Go to www.belcourt.org for trailers and tickets.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.