Even before its official publication, the novel American Psycho was the subject of controversy,
mainly for its gruesome depictions of murder. Feminists excoriated author Bret Easton Ellis as a
misogynist, others threatened him with death. The original publisher dropped the book when some
of the more lurid sequences were leaked to Time and Spy. Ellis had intended his fiction to be an
ironic comment on the go-go 1980s, when the young turks who worked on Wall Street were kings
and Reaganomics ruled but most critics dismissed the writing as clichéd and repetitious and
devoid of any worth. Nearly a decade later, the film version premiered at a time when Wall Street
once again was booming, although the new generation of movers and shakers courted media
attention less than the previous one. Adapted by Guinevere Turner and Mary Harron (who also
directed), AMERICAN PSYCHO the movie is played as satire with much of the violence toned
down or committed off screen.
Like the novel, though, this movie adaptation went through its controversial phase. Harron
initially offered the lead role of Patrick Bateman to Billy Crudup who declined. She then settled
on British actor Christian Bale but in the wake of TITANIC, Leonardo DiCaprio flirted with the
role. At that point, Harron was committed to using Bale so she was removed by Lions Gate, the
indie studio that was providing financing. Oliver Stone stepped in briefly and it appeared to be
a go until DiCaprio opted to head to Thailand for THE BEACH. Lions Gate once again asked
Harron to helm the piece and she managed to hang on to Bale as lead in part by casting
supporting roles with "name" actors like Reese Witherspoon, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto (who
himself had once been in contention to play Bateman) and Samantha Mathis. While the
finished film hasn't sparked as many angry protests, it has divided critics, many of whom
seem to miss much of its subtext and outright satire.
In both Ellis' fiction and Harron and Turner's script, Patrick Bateman is a man with what only
can be called a borderline personality. Since he adopts the uniform stylings of his co-workers
(slick-backed hair, expensive designer suits) and the accouterments of the nouveau riche
(tasteful furnishings, name-brand eye wear, tables at the best restaurants), he's like an
overgrown kid at the grown-ups table. One of the on-going jokes in both versions of
AMERICAN PSYCHO is that only those in his immediate circle know him by name. Bateman
is constantly being mistaken for someone else and while loathe to admit it, that fuels his anger.
Despite all the trappings of success - which include a wealthy fiancée (Witherspoon) and a
drug-addled mistress (Mathis), he is essentially impotent in the arena that means the most
to him: his work.
Additionally, he has the loyal secretary who also carries a not too hidden crush (well
captured by the extraordinary Chlöe Sevigny). Harron and Turner downplay Bateman's interest
in pornography, except for the constant excuse that he has to return "videotapes." (In the novel,
Ellis subversively links Bateman's fixation on pornography with his homicidal rage.) What the
film does capture well is the sense of the period and the times. While it may be difficult for
some to see such a recent time characterized as such, this is indeed a "period" film.
The Bateman of this film is a creature of the 1980s. His psychological handicap is also
beautifully captured without comment in a long monologue in which he details his use of
specific beauty products to maintain his look. If he's had a bad night and his eyes are puffy,
he'll don an ice mask while he works out at home and he ends his toilet each morning by
peeling off a facial scrub that has hardened into a translucent mask. Indeed, masks are
a recurring theme in the film.
In only her second feature, Mary Harron proves a fine director of tough material. Whether
intentional or not, she also invokes the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock (whom Ellis undoubtedly also
considered). There are allusions to the master's 1960 classic PSYCHO that go beyond just
the surface. Beyond the title and the obvious reference in the central character's name
(Bateman, Norman Bates), Harron stages some of the sequences with a nod to Hitchcock.
One sequence involves an axe wielded not unlike a knife and the reference to the Hitchcock
film is further solidified in the use of a plastic raincoat that recalls the memorable shower curtain.
Bateman also has a flair for voyeurism (he videotapes sexual encounters) which calls to mind
James Stewart in REAR WINDOW, but perhaps the area where both directors excel is in
the juxtaposition of humor with horror. While Hitchcock was limited by the mores of his time,
Harron was freer to indulge in a more overt link between sex and violence.
In the brilliant central performance of Christian Bale, Harron has indeed found the perfect
Bateman. Handsome enough to suggest Ellis' Ivy League golden boy, he also can blend in with
the other men in his pack (Justin Theroux, Bill Sage, Matt Ross, Leto). Bale is one of the world's
most underrated actors and it's become clear that even in this part, some are missing the
subtlety and attention to detail that he crafts. I've heard his performance described as
"one-note" and to some extent that is what the material calls for, yet the actor is also playing
an entire symphony built around that one note. Adopting a letter-perfect Mid-Atlantic American
accent and toning and buffing his body, Bale created a mesmerizing character whom he even
manages to make sympathetic in a handful of scenes. By necessity, the supporting players
are not as well-formed as they appear filtered through the consciousness of Bateman
Still each of the actors manage to make an impression. Witherspoon is appropriately bitchy
as Bateman's wealthy girlfriend while Mathis excels as a drug-dependent party girl.
Cara Seymour also makes a fine impression as a prostitute whom Bateman solicits twice,
and each of Bateman's male colleagues, Justin Theroux, Bill Sage and Matt Ross have strong
moments as well.
There undoubtedly will be debate about the film and the choices that Harron and Turner
have made regarding the bloody killing spree in the film. Without giving anything away, I
can say they have been faithful to the spirit of the original material but have also built on it.
AMERICAN PSYCHO will not be for everyone, but anyone who is interested in a richly layered
satire fueled by the brilliance of an overlooked actor coming into his own wlll not be disappointed.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, sexuality, drug use and language
Running time: 102 mins.
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.