Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel, “American Psycho,” begins with “Abandon all ye who enter here,” as it appears as graffiti on a wall.
Director Mary Herron’s 2000 adaptation opens with what looks like red drops of blood dripping past the frame but reveals itself to be blobs of sauce being drizzled on a plate at a high-end eatery.
The introductory notes in Herron’s film are telling. They cheekily comment on the expected carnage found in Ellis’ novel and cannily revert expectations. However, they also introduce the warped mindset of Patrick Bateman, the film’s psychopath-in-a-suit protagonist, who can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, whether its drops of blood or crème anglaise.
More chillingly, he doesn’t seem to really care.
In Ellis’ stylishly prosed, immensely controversial novel, Bateman is an employee of Pierce & Pierce (yes, a pun, but less on the nose than, say, Stab N’ Stab). His busy but mundane life is captured in thick, run-on paragraphs, full of pop culture name-dropping and materialistic obsessions.
Then, out of nowhere, Bateman would describe, in manner as detached as everything that came before it, a vicious murder he committed in sickening, vicious detail. It made for a jolting read, as chapters full of gentle lampooning of New York’s Sherman McCoy-wannabees and struggle to maintain status quo would suddenly plunge the reader into Marquis de Sade-worthy fantasies about human torture and desecration.
If nothing else, Ellis’ novel is uncanny in the way it truly captures the numb, nonchalant mindset of a man who kills as casually as he does everything else in his life.
The novel caused a widely reported scandal, as its original publisher dropped it, numerous booksellers nationwide refused to carry it and it wound up only showing up belatedly in commercial stores in a paperback copy.
Huey talking about the movie “American Psycho” https://t.co/llTYfhGSO3
— Huey Lewis (@HueyLewisNews) February 28, 2020
I recall borrowing a copy from my local library (which has never been swayed by public attempts at censorship), utterly horrified but fascinated by Ellis’ fastidiously constructed, frequently revolting work. It’s as hard to recommend as it is believing that it was written by a rational human being who isn’t serving two life sentences.
To finally get to my point, Herron’s movie is superior, because of how it only kind-of gives audiences what they want and expect, but subverts it. Screenwriter Guinevere Turner is remarkably faithful to Ellis’ language, plot specifics and the internal monolog of its monster of a “protagonist.”
Some of the books most shocking passages are present (like the terrible moment where Bateman tells two exhausted prostitutes, “We’re not through yet,” with their swift, shaken departure a clear indication of what neither the film nor the novel shows us).
Understandably (and mercifully) the most nauseating sections of the novel are either gone, suggested or only spoken about (like Bateman’s eventual confession of cannibalism). In place of Ellis’ chamber of horrors is, of all things, a scalpel-sharp satire of uber-machismo morons in suits, the material lunacies of the Me Generation and a character study of a man who is, indeed, a total psycho and in no way an anti-hero.
That last quality is key to why this works so well: we’re not meant to like Bateman or root for him in any way.
Bateman is played by Christian Bale, in a gigantic, sly, mannered and terrifying performance. The actor was best known at this point for films from his youth (the lead in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” and one of the suitors in the 1994 “Little Women”) or recent misses (like Disney fiascos “Newsies” and “Swing Kids”).
FAST FACT: “American Psycho” made a modest $15 million during its theatrical release but quickly became a cult favorite.
While Bale looks amazing, this isn’t a vanity performance (as it might have been had Leonardo DiCaprio made this his first post- “Titanic” project, as planned).
Bale isn’t afraid to look stupid, come off as ridiculous and give in to Herron’s dressing down of why this idiot thrives in an oblivious society. Bateman is never seen doing work of any kind in his office, as his personal assistant (Chloe Sevigny) carries his workload.
He works out relentlessly, as pornography and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” play unwatched in the background. Bateman is scary, to be sure, but it’s Bale’s shaping him as a buffoon that is especially fascinating.
The pairing of actor, director and screenwriter is so potent, they’ve made this not just a pitch-perfect black comedy about ’80s excess but both a necessary companion and criticism of Ellis’ book. “American Psycho” The movie is gory and full of grotesque details but also character-driven and overly devoted to mayhem.
A more faithful rendering would have been unwatchable, certainly pornographic and come across as exactly what Ellis’ novel has been accused of: misogyny.
Ellis’ book maintains its reputation as a “nasty” book. As a film “American Psycho” is, thankfully, far more restrained. Better still, it’s not misogynistic but about misogynists. The women on hand are strong and distinct, even the victims.
Turner herself sharply plays one of the prostitutes who visit Bateman’s apartment and Samantha Mathis is affecting as Bateman’s burnt-out mistress. Sevigny is excellent as the film’s most sympathetic character – her late night conversation with him in his apartment, where he warns her (in a way neither fully understands) that “I’m afraid I might hurt you,” is remarkable.
So are the pitch-perfect scenes where a terrific Willem Dafoe plays a detective tasked with interviewing Bateman (Dafoe’s straight forward approach is a great counterpoint to Bale’s wildly stylish performance).
A clever touch is having Bateman and his slick office cronies wearing nearly matching apparel, as though they all came out the same Neiman Marcus catalog. You wonder if Bateman is the only one among them who is a casual murderer, as they all share a kinship in not just their optics but in their discussions; all of them are socially conscious but completely disinterested in making the world a better place.
There’s venomous cynicism to these interchangeable monsters, a hive mindset in which image, popularity and trivial pop culture tidbits are what truly matter.
Bateman and his posse come across like aliens in human guise, slithering about in Armani suits while they take over the world and conceal their true reptilian forms. What has always been striking about “American Psycho” in any form is that this breed of uber-narcissist is all too plausible: whether it’s the ’80s (post ’87 Wall Street crash, Ivan Boesky scandal) or the more recent Enron scandal, the sea of Patrick Batemans (thinking they’re really the next Gordon Gekkos) hasn’t changed much over the years.
FAST FACT: Mila Kunis starred in 2002’s “American Psycho 2,” a film which began production with no connection to Harron’s film. Kunis openly distanced herself from the project.
The details of this world are perfect, as we see New York in the 1980s as a scary, dangerous place. There’s also the hoity-toity restaurants, serving awful, minimalist and very expensive food. There’s even a repeat of an “L.A. Story” gag, as attempts at phone reservations over the phone are met with laughter.
Yet, the scenes that fall short are the night club sequences. Like the well performed but terminally uneven 1988 “Bright Lights, Big City” adaptation, these sequences feel like ’80s pageantry; they never recreate the seductive allure and hedonistic freedom of the era (Stephon would not tout any of Bateman’s after hours hangouts as “the hottest spot in New York”).
The scene involving a homeless man is devastating – Turner instills all the venom and sadism present in the novel, as Bateman’s unleashed sadism chews up an innocent bystander.
On the other hand, a moment where Bateman displays panic at being hit on by a gay colleague doesn’t land – it’s a topic the film doesn’t know what to do with and quickly drops. On the other hand, as a character analysis of a sicko who can barely keep his “mask of sanity,” its full of rich observations, social and only quasi-political.
There are concluding references to Iran-Contra and President Reagan’s “blessing in disguise” speech, but Herron doesn’t lay this on too thick. The moment doesn’t speak to what Reagan did at that point in time but the question of who all of us are, truly, on the inside.
Bateman is a restless, degenerate animal in the era of Reagan’s old-fashioned values, as his behavior, choice of words and disinterest in empathy suggest the urban rot of ’80s New York is a jungle he’s all too happy to prowl.
Naturally, the film and novel references Donald Trump – in the film, Bateman stares outside his limo and excitedly asks, “Is that Donald Trump’s car?” In Ellis’ novel, Trump is an “obsession” of Bateman’s, which irritates his fiancée, Evelyn (played in the film by Reese Witherspoon).
Like anyone who is more successful than Bateman, Trump is an opponent he is all too happy to schmooze with. In the novel, there’s a funny bit where Bateman is stuck on an elevator with an unimpressed Tom Cruise, who Bateman puts off by complimenting him on his performance in “Bartender.”
For those who’ve never seen “American Psycho,”it’s never made clear whether Bateman’s crimes are real or a figment of his sick imagination. This isn’t a cop-out or an attempt at maddening ambiguity but a part of the film’s design.
An early bit provides a great example of how “reality” is never fully distinguished: Bateman orders a drink in a bar, the bartender (who is a woman) angers him and, with her back turned to him, he unloads a tirade of vile, maniacal insults.
We only see Bateman do this in a mirror image and we’re unsure if his words are his thoughts or something he actually spoke. The bartender turns around and gives him his drink. Notice her expression – she might have heard his psychotic outburst but maybe not. Perhaps her numb expression is her way of not dealing with him (another night, another weirdo) but perhaps, Bateman’s deranged choice of words and his violent acts (many of which are directed towards women) is wish fulfillment.
If there’s a point being made here, it’s that the ’80s were awful because of guys like Bateman, a cockroach who left a stain of filth on his environment.
In the end, Bateman’s resemblance to so many of his co-workers and the interchangeable quality of his exterior (contrasted with his ferocious inner self) is what strands him in a personal purgatory; he’s a devil who wants all the other demons in hell to care about and help him, but they won’t and they don’t.
The final words of Ellis’ novel, “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT,” is an ultimate condemnation of Bateman that the film mirrors. Herron’s film, as funny and chilling today as it was 20 years ago, punishes Bateman in a manner but not in the way movie monsters are typically dispatched.
Just like Ellis, Herron utilizes poetic justice to unmask a killer whose facades include expensive creams and splashes of blood.