This film was made in Toronto, Canada. It’s name is American Psycho. It’s 16 years old. It believes in satirizing an 80s masculine culture that led to the eventual financial collapse, and doing so with a balanced sense of dark humor and a rigorous understanding of horror cliches. In the original book, if the plot is a little puffy, it’ll cut out some of the grosser horror bits and fashion references. It cut about a thousand or so. It always uses a deep feminist stance with little or no irony, because irony dries your humor out and makes you look clumsy.
It has an idea of Patrick Bateman, some kind of larger abstraction, but cleverly avoid any real him. He’s only an entity, something illusory. Christian Bale’s performance hides his cold gaze, and you can imagine shaking his hand and feeling flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense his performance is grounded in the original source material, it simply is not there.
Okay, that was fun.
I’m cheating a little bit with American Psycho, because I’ve already written about it before. Mike, can we pull up the tapes?
American Psycho is a high-wire act of satire, perhaps one of the most absolutely difficult to read dark comedies that has ever achieved a modicum of success. It tears into the 80s-era upper-class culture with remarkable viciousness and precision, but must also play as an absolutely straight rendition of that culture. It must also be a horror film that may not be happening within the bounds of that satire, and it must never be clear which mode it’s in.
Functionally, American Psycho is a text that must be absolutely straight-faced while winking heavily. You must never have a question that it is happening while simultaneously not believing a word our narrator says. It’s a comedy so pitch-dark that you can’t see the jokes.
It’s such a difficult act that I don’t think the original Brett Easton Ellis book even got it correct. The book is too in love with its own narrative devices to really deep dive into the possibilities, often stuck in irritating product lists and grotesqueries for the sake of shock.
Mary Harron’s film is, however, I think the version of the American Psycho text that earnestly understands what it needs to do. Partially because it becomes lean enough to shove Ellis’ narrative devices into scenes that are actually moving forward. Partially because the cinematic use of POV becomes far more effective at conveying the “is it happening, is it not” of Bateman’s crimes. Plus, the near flawless lead performance of Christian Bale doesn’t hurt.
It’s a set of statements that I absolutely stand by, especially given that I made them a week or two ago. I think American Psycho is a work of satirical brilliance that didn’t find its voice until Harron got her hands on it and shaped it into what it was always meant to be. So for this, I really want to look at what Harron does to American Psycho that actually makes it so razor-sharp and cuttingly brilliant.
Harron keeps the basic premise of the book. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a Wall-Street broker with sick fantasies of murder that begin spilling over into reality. She keeps Ellis’ characters, all the vain interchangeable Wall-Street men and vain vapid women that stay around them. She largely keeps Ellis’ twisted sadism, though is willing to limit it in a few instances to keep from having the movie spill over its edges.
But she has one important quality Ellis doesn’t. She’s a woman.
American Psycho in its initial form holds the problem of satirizing at a male version of success through a male lens. It’s missing that last necessary oomph because it’s unable to stand back and look at how masculinity and its societal conceptions influenced that culture. It’s laughing at everything Ellis doesn’t feel a part of. Laughing at 80s yuppies and consumerism and pop culture. But it never laugh at 80s men.
That’s where Harron refines it. American Psycho isn’t just a text about a culture that disassociates everyone within it to the point that everyone is interchangeable. It’s a text about how the powerful men of that culture created that disassociation and how they operate within it. Harron understands how truly insane it seems from the outside, precisely because she’s an outsider.
You can see it in the way she reframes the famous Business Card scene.
Now, so much of this scene is just how insanely well it works visually. Being able to actually see that none of these cards are in anyway distinctive makes the scene punch hard, and these are some absolutely wonderful performances all around.
But it’s the way that Harron specifically pitches it as a dick-measuring contest. The way they whip it out and sit there with a shit-eating-grin, literally putting them side by side to show how much “bigger” one is than the other. The way it seems like a personal affront to Bateman and his self-conception that anyone has a nicer one. The almost orgasmic look that Bateman has when he sees Allen’s card. It’s absolute brilliance that soaks the way that Harron views this world into the very DNA of this film.
Harron is able to do this because she lives in the world that these men have created, but can never enter it. American Psycho is her vicious mockery of this ridiculous men. It creates a personality to her conception of this story, something specific about her view that comes through in every overly friendly interaction and affected flat accent.
That specificity gives her absolute control. Harron knows exactly what she wants to say and she never lets up on the steering wheel. Even in the increasingly bizarre ending, there’s a sense that she knows what this all means, even if we don’t.
The playground Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner have crafted is also what allows Christian Bale to flourish. Her clockwork world gives him the space to give what I believe to be one of the best male lead performances ever.
A good actor is thinking through everything they do. A great actor makes it seem like they don’t even have to think. Bale slips on the skin of Bateman, every tick and motion designed to hold something under the surface, and every release of his inner monster designed to terrify.
American Psycho is one of the greats because it’s so much more than what it seems to be. For all of it’s quotability and ripped Christian Bale, for all of its thriller entertainment value, it’s one of the most powerful feminist statements and works of satire ever put in cinema.
It uses the images and words of a world that held such a tight grip on the American imagination to tear it apart. It does it without ever breaking its gaze or without ever cracking a smile. It only ever lets you know what it thinks because it makes you think it.
In other words, are you asking “What the fuck is wrong with these guys?” Good. You should be.