Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Wednesday Horror: American Psycho

Film: American Psycho
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

Back in my podcasting days, Nick Jobe and I watched American Psycho. I don’t remember what the theme of that episode was, and I don’t remember the movie I picked to pair with it, but this was definitely Nick’s choice. That’s not a comment on Nick, just a recognition that Nick had seen it and I hadn’t. The truth is that I think American Psycho is close to an underknown classic, a film that should be better known and more frequently seen. This is sardonic film, a sort of winking nod at the excesses of the Reagan-fueled 1980s and the immoral, greed-soaked culture that it spawned.

One of the genius moves of American Psycho is that we never really know what its anti-hero Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) actually does for a living. He works for a firm called Pierce & Pierce and his business cards say “Vice President,” but we never really see him doing anything in terms of actually earning a living. In truth, he is our American psycho, someone who is completely without emotion, a true psychopath. We learn initially of his morning routine designed to help him keep up the façade of his daily life—his sort-of fiancée Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), his work life, his insane jealousy over other people’s business cards. But, buried deep inside him, there is a growing disgust with the world and a bloodlust that demands being sated.

Really, that’s the entire plot here. Everyone in the film is nothing more than a surface character. Even Patrick in most respects is a character who has nothing beneath his surface. His chosen topic of conversation is pop music, in which he takes an almost academic interest, speaking glowingly of the deep philosophical impact of artists like Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis and the News, and Phil Collins. Often, this happens directly before he does something truly horrible.

Despite this being essentially a plotless film in many ways, it is endlessly fascinating. Much of this comes from the clear satire of the greed of the era. Everything appears to be played completely straight, but everything that happens comes with a veneer of parody. We never really see anyone do much of anything like work to earn their clearly enormous salaries. Only Patrick’s secretary Jean (Chloe Sevigny) really seems to do anything at all. Patrick and his co-workers discuss women in disparaging terms, obsess over which off-white color and fonts are best for business cards, and which overpriced restaurant they can get reservations at. They are the idle, non-working side of the characters from Wall Street, endless possessed of the same self-absorption and avarice, the same complete lack of conscience. In fact, Patrick Bateman is really just the extreme version, the completely amoral and murderous version, of everyone else on the screen.

What American Psycho does is present us with a film where the only person we ever really know at all is the psychopath of the title. In that sense, it hearkens back to a film like Peeping Tom but goes at this from a very different angle. In Peeping Tom, we eventually sympathize with the killer. Here, there is nothing about Patrick Bateman with which we can sympathize. He is utterly devoid of any human feeling or even any humanity. He becomes something like a science experiment, with the film showing us just how deeply his insanity runs. His various murders—stabbing a vagrant (Reg E. Cathey) and kicking his dog to death, hacking a co-worker (Jared Leto) to death with a polished, silver axe, dropping a running chainsaw on a prostitute (Cara Seymour)—become increasingly disturbing until the end of the film when he seems to be killing simply because there is nothing left for him.

I won’t spoil the film by giving away the final 15 minutes or so. Suffice to say that those closing minutes put virtually everything else in the film to question. This often doesn’t work well, but here, it’s the perfect way to conclude the story.

Christian Bale was evidently warned not to take this role because it would be career suicide. Instead, it’s the film that made him an A-list actor. Sadly, the same thing didn’t happen for director Mary Harron, who directed this with a stark clarity. While the gore is frequently implied (there’s plenty of blood but most of the bodies we see are already dead), everything else is the epitome of ‘80s excess. The film has the same veneer of wealth and status overlaying soulless greed that the story does.

Is this a classic? It might well be. American Psycho is a much deeper film than its pretensions, and while there are plenty of people who will be immediately turned off by the inherent misogyny and misanthropy of the story, that’s not really the story’s main point. It’s so much deeper than that, and a hell of a lot better than that, too.

Now, go return some videotapes and have some sorbet.

Why to watch American Psycho: Christian Bale’s manic performance and ‘80s greed nostalgia.
Why not to watch: No clear reason, really


  1. Yes, this one is a classic. You summed up why, perfectly.

    1. I think that's where I'm leaning. It'd be a controversial classic, but it's so much smarter than it looks.

  2. Yup. The first time I watched it, I didn't really "get" it. But I think I was too young. When I rewatched it, most likely even for this aforementioned podcast episode, I loved it. I totally got it--the dark humor... everything. It's really fantastic.

  3. "His chosen topic of conversation is pop music, in which he takes an almost academic interest, speaking glowingly of the deep philosophical impact of artists like Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis and the News, and Phil Collins."

    You will, of course, have seen this little classic, then.

  4. "American Psycho is a much deeper film than its pretensions..."

    And how often do you have the chance to express a magnificent sentiment like that about any movie? I'm trying to think of a single film in my viewing experience to which I could apply your quote, and I'm coming up empty—for now. In fact, I'm beginning to wonder whether that sentiment could work as a sort of metric, like the Bechdel test, for gauging the quality of a film: is the movie, upon reflection, deeper than it looks or claims to be?

    1. It might be more common than you think. Any film that is prurient on its surface but actually as a message is deeper than its pretensions, I think. Say Night of the Living Dead, for instance. On the surface, it's a straight horror film that was, at the time, blindingly original. But there's a rich subtext there that makes it much more than just zombies eating people.

      American Psycho is ultimately satire, and very good satire.

  5. The whole film is very clever and weirdly funny: the business card scene is perhaps the best in the whole movie, except for Patrick Bateman preparing his apartment for a murder right in front of the intended victim while waxing lyrical about Huey Lewis and the News. That is genius.

    I too am surprised Mary Harron didn't get more directing gigs after this. She made a film that walks a very fine balance between horror and humour and gets it pretty perfect. And she directed Bale's performance, which is one of the best of the decade.

    1. A week or so ago, I said that women directors need more attention, although I said that in regard to Frida. This is another case of the same. It's also especially true in the horror genre. American Psycho is subtle and required a deft touch to work. The controversial nature of the film might have worked against her, but I doubt it worked against her more than being a female director, ultimately.