American Psycho - Internet Movie Database American Psycho - Nitrate Online Review
Contents | Features | Reviews | Books | Archives | Store
American Psycho - Nitrate Online Store
Movie Credits Buy It!

American Psycho

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 14 April 2000

Directed by Mary Harron.

 Starring Christian Bale, 
Jared Leto, Matt Ross, 
Bill Sage, Justin Theroux, 
Samantha Mathis, Guinevere Turner, 
Cara Seymour, Reese Witherspoon, 
Chloe Sevigny and Willem Dafoe.

Written by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner, 
based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis.

Bret Easton Ellis' 1991 novel American Psycho became notorious not only in its attempts to depict its upwardly-mobile young American business professional, Patrick Bateman, as being so amoral and soulless that he could perpetrate inhuman acts of violence with complete impunity, but also for how he would identify people not by their facial features or the color of their hair, but by what clothes they wore, as if the only thing he read in Vanity Fair or GQ were the advertisements instead of the articles. Thus, each character was introduced, in every scene, by an exhaustive rundown of what they were wearing and by whom. Some friends attempted to convince me that if you started treating these designer laundry lists, which took up page after page of the narrative, as some sort of recurring mantra, the book would start to work in your head. But after 125 pages I couldn't care less who was wearing Cerutti 1881 or not, and threw the book across the room. And I hadn't even gotten to any of the really gross stuff, yet. (which was when my friends promptly threw their copies of the book across the room.)

If anyone could make a legitimate film out of this opus, it would be Mary Harron, who previously took the real-life story of Valerie Solanas -- the woman who believed that the world could only be made a better place by exterminating the "male species," and shot Andy Warhol in an attempt to try and start doing so -- and turned it into a surprisingly evocative, insightful, and even sympathetic film. Harron has said that she read Ellis' American Psycho (she was going to school in Oxford at the time of its publication) as a depiction of male misogyny in America during the 1980s -- post-feminist male rage. And Patrick Bateman's treatment of women, which ranges from dismissive to cruel and way, way beyond, can certainly be seen as exemplifying the uneasy truce that has existed between men and women over the last quarter of a century (and which was most exquisitely depicted in Mike Leigh's great 1993 film Naked).

Near the beginning of Harron's film, the young men who work as executives at Pearce and Pearce, the anomalous financial place where Bateman works, are seen milling about in a conference room. Since everybody has bought the same clothes from the same designers, they've all started to look the same (The film uses Eighties "power color" shades of black, grey, chrome, and white predominantly). Patrick is mistaken for someone else by a visiting executive, and he happily encourages the guy -- who leaves his business card before departing. One of the young Pearce and Pearce Turks says, why doesn't he show them his new business card, fresh from the printer's? The other men examine it, mouth responses -- and the chrome/silver card cases begin snapping open. Bateman produces his and can identify its exact type style and paper color. But then one exec displays his -- raised lettering, and, to Bateman's horror, it even has a watermark. They're like latter-day incarnations of members of the old European courts, making a big deal about rating particularities because they have nothing else to fill-up their lives.

Harron's film is probably going to be attacked for all the wrong reasons: it's either violent, or not violent enough (the fleeting glimpses of violence, in context with the rest of the film, are even more frightening than if they were less fleeting); that it's too mannered (when it's actually ironic) or superficial (it's reporting on a superficial time, not emulating it); that it's too stylized (except that people really did wear these clothes, furnish their apartments, go to these restaurants, and assume these values during that period); that it's too serious (it's actually quite funny, in parts). The film is hampered by the same thing as Ellis' novel, in that it asks us to first pay attention to a zero who can only express himself through increasing acts of mayhem, and comes to depend upon it more and more ("I'm requiring increasing amounts of homicidal violence...," Bateman says, incredulously, at one point, as if discussing how his medication had just been upped). Ellis exacerbated the violence to the point where it was criticized for being the novel's only reason for existing. Harron, though, who did the film's screenplay adaptation with Guinevere Turner, has made some allowances.

She's taken what I can think of as the only workable approach to this sort of material, one that's slightly distanced yet alert for moments of sardonic humor, without playing down the gravity of Bateman's misdeeds. Cara Seymour plays a working-girl whom Bateman picks up on a darkened nighttime corner to take back to his apartment, where he has her bathe, change into a couturier dress, and then sit, in anticipation of who-knows-what, while he pontificates on the meanings and significance of the "oeuvres" of Phil Collins or Whitney Houston (Harron could not have anticipated, while she was making the film, the merriment that will be had over that latter choice). In the scene, Harron stays with Seymour's character, who's scared, trying to hold herself together, because she has to make a living, while Bateman talks and issues small commands about how to sit or where to stand, which she must comply with to get her money. The quiet tension that arises out of the dynamics of the scene is more harrowing than if it had been done in a more overt, unsophisticated way.

Christian Bale, who has been doing steady, fine work in films for years, certainly does more with the role of Patrick Bateman than Leonardo DiCaprio probably ever would have (In case you were in Nepal last year, it almost looked like DiCaprio was going to get the part). The actor's arms, legs and torso have been bulked-up to absurdly pointless perfection, and the results have emphasized a squareness in Bale's cheekbones and brow, making his face more dynamic, his stare, when it becomes dark, more imposing. Bale speaks in the rounded, oracular tones of cultivated cordiality that walks the line between sincerity and disguise (At times, he sounds like Adam West's jaded businessman in The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker and, later, The New Age, before he got married, got a house, and turned to drink). Yet he gives Bateman a slightly quizzical quality during all this -- as if he's been dropped, out of nowhere, into this godlike corporeal form, wearing fine clothes, working in a fancy office where he makes loads of money for doing practically nothing, and he doesn't seem to know quite what to do with himself. This tension, vibrating like a reed in the wind, is sustained up until Bateman's eventual, harrowing break.

In the final scenes, Harron pulls off an astonishing coup de cinéma  which calls everything that Bateman has done previously in the story into question. We suddenly realize that what we have been seeing, bad or good, has all been from his point-of-view. And that, of course, is flawed. Bateman himself comes to realize that he's at the point where he can no longer be sure how much of what he's been doing is truly delusional. Someone who was supposed to be dead is assured to be very much walking-around and alive; in the meantime, Bateman's ill feelings towards women become more than evident to the one person in his life who cares about him as a person (Chloe Sevigny, whose ingenuous quality makes her perfectly cast). Bateman finds himself plunged into a fix where he has to receive some sort of assurance, some sort of affirmation of himself. At the film's conclusion, where the famous THIS IS NOT AN EXIT scene is recreated from Ellis' novel, Bateman looks around him and sees something like the "infinity" effect that occurs when two mirrors face each other, only, in the scene, it is done with people, all of whom look alike, all of whom are as buff-polished and cut-off from caring and existence as he. Bale makes Bateman's desperation very palpable, very believable, and affecting, as it is revealed that he is in a prison of his own making, and the occurrence is most chilling. He needs something from people, and they can never give it to him. He is a fallen angel who reaches out for redemption, and finds that there's nothing there. The meanings in Harron's stark film don't come together right away until well after the final frame has turned to black; the film is a bomb set to explode in your consciousness by delayed timing.

  • Main Page
  • American Psycho is a bomb set to explode in your consciousness by delayed timing - Gregory Avery.

  • American Psycho is half of a brilliant movie, before it hacks itself to pieces during the final reel - KJ Doughton.

Contents | Features | Reviews | Books | Archives | Store
Copyright © 2000 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.