American Psycho. – Review

American Psycho. – Review – movie review

Gavin Smith

Mary Harron, USA, 2000

The prospect of a film of Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious 1991 novel American Psycho seemed less than bright. Ellis’s first-person narrative entrusts the reader with the tedious confidences of Patrick Bateman, an emptyheaded, solipsistic Wall Street preppie/yuppie whose mindless lifestyle of compulsive consumption, pop culture bingeing, restaurant and club hopping, and impersonal sexcapades is enlivened only by blithe and ever more improbably gross acts of torture, murder, and dismemberment, committed with inexplicable impunity. His credo might be: No Pain No Gain. An obvious, sub-Swiftian reductio ad absurdum of the callousness and obscene self-indulgence of Eighties yuppie culture, it’s a good 150 pages too long and soon wears thin. Despite the cultural ascendancy of the serial killer in the popular imagination in the decade since its publication, was there really a film inside this monotonous recitation of shopping, fucking, and snuffing? The answer is a resounding yes. Although David Cronenberg’s name was once floated as a possible director, it must be said that, despite her disappointingly shallow I Shot Andy Warhol, it’s hard to imagine a better candidate for the job than Mary Harron. She and screenplay collaborator-actress Guinevere Turner (who turns in a snappy performance as one of Bateman’s victims) have done an exemplary job of adaptation — distilling, sharpening, and fleshing out the malignant essence of the novel, outfitting it with a judiciously deployed voiceover, scaling back the violence, dispensing with the endless lists of possessions. The result is a mordantly funny and agreeably blatant satire with genuinely subversive bite. In its beguiling sense of disjuncture between outlandish transgression and suspended consequence, it’s a not-so-distant cousin of late Bunuel like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty, and in particular of Italian director Elio Petri’s 1970 film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.

The film’s opening image is the first of many memorably bold, droll strokes. Blood dripping onto a white surface. No — in slow disclosure, that white surface proves to be a plate, the “blood” a sparingly applied sauce, an ingredient in an artfully contrived nouvelle cuisine dish, a quintessential Eighties signifier. The viewer is being invited to an insubstantial meal of dubious nutritional value where appearance is all. Harron begins her film by invoking the distinction between good taste and bad.

Bateman (Christian Bale) is introduced in the process of reconstituting his nominal identity at the start of a new day: his voiceover takes us through a regimen of beauty products and treatments, presenting a perfectly sculpted body that’s at once hypermasculine and feminized. Subsequent sequences establish the confines of his world. Here’s the corporate workplace, the power office, and doting, impressionable personal assistant (Chloe Sevigny). One of the film’s jokes is that precisely what Bateman does to earn all that money remains an abstraction; at one point he furnishes a less-than-convincing explanation, but we only ever see him feigning work. Here’s the social circle, a fiancee (Reese Witherspoon) who’s as self-involved as he is, and an interchangeable group of yuppie peers (one a dead ringer for Charlie Sheen in Wall Street). A recurring gag about mistaken identity underscores the tenuousness and superficiality not just of relationships but of identities. Bateman’s life is a self-contained, self-perpetuating simulation where people are disposable, equivalent props. After killing a feared/despised yuppie rival (Jared Leto) and disposing of his corpse, it is a simple matter to assume his identity and even visit his apartment. What do you give the yuppie who has everything? An alter ego.

If Bateman is only a psychopath initially, there’s a definite point where the outrageousness of his actions indicates that he has crossed over into outright psychosis — well before he’s chasing a victim around an apartment in his birthday suit toting a chainsaw, we’re no longer in a literal reality, we’re in the realm of delusion. There’s a distinct sense that even the detective (a supremely well-cast Willem Dafoe) who keeps questioning him about the disappearance of one of his victims has become a projection or figment of his warped mind.

The deranged triangulation of narcissism, homoeroticism, and misogyny that Bateman embodies is epitomized in a memorable scene exquisitely set to Phil Collins’s “Sussudio,” in which he videotapes himself having sex with two prostitutes, all the while admiring his own physique in the mirror. Truly a man without qualities, by the end he has become Eighties excess incarnate. Christian Bale’s performance is a tour de force: carefully mannered, boldly physical, gloatingly smug one minute, self-loathingly panic-stricken the next. Taut, uptight, profoundly vacant, he’s a Tom Cruise of the id. (I can’t quibble with Harron’s casting, but am I the only one who feels Rob Lowe was born to play Bateman?)

Harron demonstrates admirable control, negotiating a deadpan style somewhere between a hyperrealist pornography of capital and an expressionist psychodrama of dissociative interiority — imagine David Lynch remaking Godard’s Slow Motion. American Psycho is at once a cold dissection of the material and a delirious, headlong plunge into it. A period film about a decade that from the vantage point of the present looks more debased and crass than even the Seventies, it perfectly captures the ambiance of downtown Manhattan circa 1988 (credit DP Andrzej Sekula and production designer Gideon Ponte). Bateman has been supplied with all the right accessories: a Robert Longo and a Richard Prince hang in the livingroom, and you can’t get much worse than that. The first song on the soundtrack is a bull’s-eye — New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.” The film’s music is the music playing inside the head of our depraved, status-conscious hero. Every breathtakingly rancid music cue is to be savored. It’s a toss-up as to what’s the greater gross-out — the severed heads in the refrigerator or the spectre of Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red” looming on the soundtrack.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group