Movies: American Psycho

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-04-03 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

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It's hard to make a good movie about a horrible person. Most horrible people are just not worth the trouble. Mary Harron's American Psycho, from Bret Easton Ellis's novel, is about a truly horrible person, dissected like one of those anatomical models where you can take the organs out. It also understands that with some subjects you don't have to go far to be satirical. Only the outward acts of the main character are exaggerated. His impulses, and the way they underscore his fundamental hollowness, are taken as-is, because they are legion.

Outwardly, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a smiling Ken doll. He has a sinecure at a mergers and acquisitions firm where he does no discernible work. He sits with three of his other cronies in a restaurant over a hideously overpriced lunch and tut-tuts at them about making antisemitic cracks about a co-worker. He offers solicitous advice to a troubled sort-of girlfriend over the phone. He also tells a drunk comrade, "I like to dissect girls. Did I tell you I'm utterly insane?" and smiles when he realizes his words, which are entirely true, are going in one ear and out the other.

Banal on the outside and the inside.

Bateman is a sociopath, for whom all of the rest of human existence is cheap sport. He knows if he says he's into "murders and executions", his conversational partner will nod and assume he said "mergers and acquisitions". His greatest rage is reserved for realizing the other guys in his company have nicer business cards. His greatest joy, such as it is, comes from realizing he can do whatever the hell he wants and there is a fair chance not a thing will ever happen to him because he's white, male, and wealthy. For the most part, he's right.

The movie unfolds as a series of escalating black-comic vignettes, where Bateman parades his shallow, middle-of-the-road tastes to those around him on the outside, and on the inside seethes about his emptiness and fantasizes about the destruction of others. He assaults a homeless man, the better to reinforce in his mind how this filthy thing in front of him can't possibly be human. When one of Bateman's partners at work (Jared Leto, cheerfully snotty) consistently mistakes him for another co-worker, he gets him drunk and hacks him to pieces. He orchestrates and films an orgy (using the name of his dead co-worker) with two prostitutes while lecturing them about Phil Collins, and spends most of it, consummate narcissist that he is, winking at himself in the mirror. When a detective (a buttoned-down Willem Dafoe) comes sniffing around, Bateman insinuates, with a radiant smile, the dead man was one of those closeted gay Yale guys who did lots of coke. Who knows what else he was into?

How much of the violence is real is less the point than the underlying impulse.

The hardest part to get right about satire is the tone. Harron manages to make every scene in this movie funny and horrible at the same time, because lurking under the banality of the moment is the off-chance that Bateman will reach for an axe or a nailgun. In this way, the movie toys adroitly with our own responses. Bateman, vile as he is, is at least interesting to follow, while everyone else around him is not even fully one-dimensional. And so when we find ourselves secretly rooting for the shallow people to die, Harron reminds us that the agent of their death is someone who would just as soon murder his nice secretary for the fun of it. She, and the other female characters in the film, are the counterweight needed for the satire to work: the way Harron directs and films them, you can sense them looking at Bateman, and through him, and out the other side, and not being taken seriously is the one thing that causes Bateman to unravel like a pencil twisted in its sharpener.

Most books with literary ambitions do not make good films, because they operate on a plane that you cannot point a camera at and get good results from — yes, even when it seems like you could (The Great Gatsby). Ellis's novel divided people as to whether it was jet-black satire or simply a bid for notoriety on its author's part. The movie is far more clear-sighted about its material, and finds better ways to surface its satirical aspects. It also has the good sense to discard the nasty clinical details the book seems to enjoy rubbing in our faces; the movie settles sensibly for blood instead of SE7EN-style postmortem gore. It knows how to wink at the exploitation-movie material it's aware it's evoking, as when Bateman improbably throws a chainsaw at a fleeing girl, or a sequence late in the film that's a riff on gun-wielding antihero vigilante flicks. And most every line in it is contextually funny, with innocuous banalities and mindless pleasantries counterpointed with, and taken at greater face value than, the deadly insults and bodily threats that follow.

The unwitting who can't see a monster in their midst.

Sociopaths get away with it, I suspect, because the rest of us are not sociopaths. They weaponize the social contract in their favor, and can count on the sheer asymmetricality of their behavior to protect them. We just don't want to believe such people exist. The insight at the heart of American Psycho is that most of the other people in Bateman's position don't actually have to hack someone to death to be monsters. They can grope women in the elevator, or abuse them behind closed doors. And they're everywhere. Bateman, rare as he is, is just finishing what they started.

The end of the film is even bleaker than I expected. It raises the possibility that much of what has come before has not been real, but also notes that asking "what was real?" is irrelevant. What matters is that Bateman's evil, in whatever form, bulks tiny next to a world that refuses to look him in the face, let alone cower from him. The worst thing Bateman realizes about himself, and the worst thing we realize about him, is not that he's a monster, but that being monstrous doesn't make him special in this world. You've seen his like before, and you'll see him again. Unfortunately.

An even bleaker conclusion than you might expect.

Tags: Bret Easton Ellis Christian Bale Mary Harron movies review