Ordinary people long to remain as in tune with their present, in terms of art, fashion, entertainment, and information, as most others. But none of us can truly reach the point of no return, of final catharsis, where one can sit back and say that one has nothing new to imbibe. It is hard enough to keep pace with everyone around us, and their differing tastes in varied sections of the social and artistic landscapes. But, when this trait becomes the hallmark of someone so disturbed that they think they might lash out violently in search of that catharsis, we enter new, yet strangely familiar territory. This is the crucial theme explored in Mary Harron’s 2000 cult thriller American Psycho, adapted from Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel of the same name. The film becomes a metaphor for the gross materialism and narcissism propagated by the Reaganomics of the 1980s. By the end, it leaves the viewer needing the same catharsis that the protagonist may or may not achieve.
Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a successful investment banker in 1980s New York, moonlights as a psychotic serial killer. Keeping up the necessary appearances, among his friends and fiancée, of high-end dinners, restaurants, residences and clothing, he strives to attain perfection in that appearance, and lets the audience know it as well, time and again. But as he becomes increasingly unhinged, amidst his efforts to be in tune with reality, his mind starts breaking and leads to an absorbing climax. A clever translation, the film always seeks to emphasize the satirical aspects of the book, within a more coherent narrative, and has therefore, managed to attain cult status, and may have never been more relevant than today in the era of ultimate self-obsession with one’s status hidden under moral platitudes.
In an incredibly faithful adaptation, co-writer and director Mary Harron shows an invasive journey into the American yuppie culture, which started in the 1980s, and its troubled subconscious as presented in the novel by Ellis. Harron lays out the period in terms of beautiful set design by Gideon Ponte, echoing postmodern architecture with the representative cultural trademarks. The darkly black script by Harron and Guinevere Turner, who also plays a small role in the film, transcends the novel and paints a captivating portrait of Wall Street arts, and how they define these men and their lives, full of drinks, drugs, women and want, deftly blending horror and humour. The women wisely take the decision to be judicious with the book’s gore and sex, and are more interested in the pathetic vanity of these insecure men, giving it a feminist critical edge which has not lost any of its bite, especially today. As Bateman lays out the nuances of his diverse tastes in couture, music, and dining, he becomes a symbol for the overtly materialistic “yuppie” generation, which could never be satisfied. Their homogenous and self-absorbed nature lead to an incredible running gag of mistaken identity percolating through the film. As the film goes on, the minds behind these misogynistic men are exposed as wholly unoriginal and incapable of straying from the socially acceptable, yet always demanding better and more of the same.
However, it is the protagonist who is somewhat identifiable in his needs yet alien in his methods and would have been an immense challenge for any actor onscreen. Christian Bale proves to be a perfect fit with his leading-man looks, physique, and disarming smile, which appropriately hide the monster within him. An early career-making performance, he proves to be every bit as authentic as the unreliable narrator, his inner monologues critiquing his likes and dislikes. Bale transforms swiftly from being an ordinary Wall Street banker with the good looks and unending charm, to a dangerous psychopath, with a spine-chilling smirk, becoming increasingly incapable of withholding his deranged desires, as they find their way into everyday social conversations. He truly sinks his teeth (pun unintended) into the plethora of his selfish emotions and needs. Not getting the perfect restaurant table or managing an average business card can almost make him lose his cool, but he clearly states his murderous interests, with an equally vain tone. The supporting cast plays off his creepy delivery with perfection. Reese Witherspoon, as his obnoxious fiancée, and Willem Dafoe, as the investigator, do great work in their underwritten roles, proving to be great foils to Bale’s antics.
Ultimately, it is a smart black comedy, with a good balance of dark contextual humour and a disturbing thematic examination of the hollow realities of the human psyche. Being predominantly held together by Bale’s bracing performance, and Harron’s daring direction, American Psycho is an underrated satirical masterpiece which raises the question of whether one can ever master one’s own needs, and will intentionally make one laugh and squirm at Bateman in his pursuit. What one may not see, however, is that all of us may have a bit of Bateman in ourselves.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.