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American Psycho

Review by KJ Doughton
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.

American Psycho is half of a brilliant movie, before it hacks itself to pieces during the final reel.  Mary Harron’s menacing commentary on eighties yuppiedom gone horribly awry is made all the more frightening by its accurate profile of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale, in a star-making turn), a Wall Street broker more interested in murders and executions than mergers and acquisitions. Bateman’s value system is so skewed that he places restaurant reservations and power ties over human life on his twisted priority list. And while most brokers certainly don’t knife transients with the casual cruelty of this soulless, satanic creep, there are people out there who mirror Bateman’s addiction to designer name brands and power lunches.  That’s the scariest thing of all.  “I have no single identifiable human emotions, except for greed and disgust,” Bateman confesses in an early narrative. He’s not kidding.

The movie opens at a decadent yuppie watering hole, where Bateman and a bunch of his business cronies place dinner orders.  With their black trench coats and red power ties, these fresh-faced goons look like gangster wannabes as they request “squid ravioli in lemongrass broth.”  But unlike Scorsese’s Goodfellas, who acted as fire and ice in a dynamically volatile brew of different personalities, these guys really are bland and interchangeable.  In fact, one of American Psycho’s funniest running gags is that people can’t tell these Ken-doll businessmen apart: no one can keep all the names straight. 

Perhaps this is due to poor communication skills.  When Bateman announces to his upwardly mobile pals that he likes to dissect girls, the would-be listeners are so egocentric than no one takes note.  Later, when this disturbed misogynist tell a female bartender, “I want to stab you to death and play with your blood,” she hands him a drink without batting an eye.  In this narcissistic world of cell phones, business cards, and stark-white apartment lofts, everyone talks and nobody listens. 

American Psycho’s first half is an anthropological study of the eighties male psyche gone rotten, and it’s fascinating.  When a Bateman voice-over narrates his morning preparation rituals, it’s a gag-inducing list of obsessive-compulsive tasks that are completely and utterly self-absorbed. “If I wake up and my face is at all puffy, I can apply and ice pack while I do my curls,” he says, revealing such beauty secrets as deep-pore honey almond scrub and an herb mint facemask. Later, he plays critiques Phil Collins albums and admires his own buff reflection in the mirror while in flagrante with two less-than-thrilled prostitutes.

All this overworked self-love acts as an effective contrast to the complete and utter disrespect that Bateman has for the rest of the human race.  He screams at the Korean laundromat owners who can’t remove the bloodstains from his bedsheets, and belittles a homeless man before offing him in the matter-of-fact manner of a deckhand gutting a salmon. In American Psycho’s best scene, the jealous Bateman blows a gasket when Paul Allen (Jared Leto, of Prefontaine fame), another young upstart at his sales firm, unveils a new business card that’s fancier than his.  “It’s printed on eggshell white with cerulean type,” boasts the proud competitor, before he’s axed to the tune of Huey Lewis’ “Hip to be Square.”

The murder prompts visits from Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe), a private investigator hired by Allen’s family to find the butchered broker.  “It’s strange – eerie – how someone could just disappear like that,” laments Kimball during his first interrogation of Bateman. Dafoe’s craggy face and patient, concerned manner, illustrate that a human presence has landed on this island of indifference, and it’s a shocking contrast. Meanwhile, the fact that Kimball has problems with Bateman’s less than watertight alibi shows that the sleuth is the only person in the movie who really listens to this impeccably coifed maniac– and sees through his façade. 

Eventually, Bateman’s secretary Jean also catches on.  Played by Chloe Sevigny as a sweetly shy, insecure office gopher who puts up with her boss’ criticisms of her business wardrobe while fielding calls, Jean is another compassionate presence who stands out like a sore thumb in this emotionally vacant world.  “Have you ever wanted to make someone happy?” she asks Bateman, fishing for some human connection with this testosterone-addled beast, and unaware that he has a nail gun poised at the back of her head.  The other women in his life, including sedative-gobbling mistress Courtney (Samantha Mathis) and social climbing fiancée Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), are so numbed by Bateman’s world of material status and decadent dinner clubs that when he dumps each of them, there’s no real sadness: it’s just a formality.

Eventually, this ice-cold premise outlives its welcome.  The concept of Patrick Bateman, a guy with Tom Cruise looks, a limitless line of credit, and no soul, is the stuff of genius.  But ultimately, American Psycho is all dressed up with nowhere to go.  When the audience is tipped off that Bateman might be hallucinating, and that his murders might not actually be for real, corporate, cutthroat greed is let off the hook so that schizophrenia can take the rap.  It’s a cop-out.  By film’s end, we’re not sure what really happened, while Bateman’ repetitive power-lunch-‘n-snuff routine continues, redundantly. 

American Psycho was directed by Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol), who has dubbed the film “feminist.” So be it. Treading similar ground as Neil LaButte’s In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, Harron’s movie suggests that the primal male drive to compete and conquer has yet to be tempered and managed.  Today’s alpha male might not use sticks and stones to bludgeon his aggressors, but he’s still seething inside, just dying to one-up his peers with that new Rolex, Porsche, or Ralph Lauren wardrobe.  American Psycho paints this picture brilliantly, but the canvas is too big.  In the manner of her meticulous title character, Harron should have whittled down this would-be masterpiece by severing a few bits and pieces.  Even so, she’s a talent to be watched.    

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  • 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.

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