Nathan: A lot of big-name directors and actors were attached to American Psycho at various times, most notably Oliver Stone, before a relatively inexperienced, unknown director named Mary Harron ended up with the job. Harron gives the film an almost Kubrickian coldness and detachment that perfectly suits the material, particularly Christian Bale’s brilliant performance, which alternates between clammy coldness and manic excitability. American Psycho is a film of gleaming, impossibly perfect surfaces, devoid of comfort or warmth. This relentless emphasis on appearance renders the bursts of extreme violence all the more shocking. Patrick Bateman normally wouldn’t tolerate a single hair out of place on his immaculately coiffed head, but in psycho mode, he isn’t at all averse to rampaging naked and bloody with a chainsaw as he pursues a victim. In the hands of someone like Stone, American Psycho could easily have devolved into heavy-handed camp, a hyper-masculine exercise in stylized bloodshed à la Natural Born Killers. But Harron and her inspired collaborators take the opposite approach, transforming a one-joke novel (albeit one with an inspired joke) into a dry comedy of matters splattered with blood and viscera.
Scott: We’ll no doubt be talking about Harron’s conceptual brilliance in adapting a book many considered unadaptable, but in terms of style, you’re right, Nathan: Shooting American Psycho in cold, Kubrickian whites, with maximum tonal detachment, both clarifies the masculine/capitalist savagery that’s central to Bret Easton Ellis’ book, and makes the mayhem palatable for the audience. This latter point is crucial, since Ellis’ first-person tour through Bateman’s deranged, obsessive mind couldn’t be translated to the screen intact without alienating (and boring) virtually anyone paying to see it. As it stands, the pristine whites that recur in the film—from the witty red drizzle on the dessert plate in the opening sequence to the “bone” color of Bateman’s business cards—convey this impossible need on Bateman’s part to have the world conform perfectly to his specifications and desires. Any blemish either drives him mad, or becomes bloody evidence of his madness.
Tasha: Much of that coldness comes from the film’s impeccable sense of control, from its first seconds: The opening pan across decorous, precisely artful plates gives way to a series of combed, pristine, high-cheekboned waiters who look just as arranged, and then they give way to the opening conversation between Bateman and his cronies, who deliver their lines with such crisp, forceful enunciation that they barely seem like they’re actually saying meaningful words. The set decoration, the casting, the costuming, the acting, the scripting: It’s all just as bloodless and deliberate, until Bateman starts losing control of himself. The genius is that the reversion back to control after an outbreak becomes its own kind of tension: There’s more discomfort in the airless business-card one-upsmanship scene than there is in Patrick Bateman murdering someone with an axe, both because the axe-murder is so comedically over the top, and because at least he’s showing emotions. After so much hermetic deadness, it’s a relief to see him doing something explosive and cathartic. It makes me re-think The Shining, where Kubrick created the exact same contrast between endlessly building, breathless, icy tension, and a maniac busting loose with an axe.
Keith: This is where I admit that I’m still not quite sure what to make of this movie after 14 years and several viewings. I like it, and I like it a little more each time, but those stylistic qualities make it a tough nut to crack. Harron directs with the control Bateman wants to exert on the world; if he’d directed the movie, it would probably look much the same. It’s also the perfect style for the world of the film, where everyone seems to be aspiring to live amid gleaming surfaces that match the polished “professionalism” of the pop hits Bateman loves so dearly. (This doesn’t get a monologue, but Bateman’s Walkman reverie to Chris de Burgh’s antiseptic hit “Lady In Red” is one of my favorite musical moments.) But does the material always fit that style? It sometimes feels like Bale’s brilliant performance wants to break out of it, and into a movie that’s a little looser with its humor. And to my eyes, the stretch of the film in which Bateman is on the run from the cops—maybe—feels at odds with the rest of the film.
Matt: My favorite component of American Psycho’s style is Bale’s voiceover narration. In the opening scenes, he describes his morning routine with absolute calm and composure. (“In the morning, if my face is a little puffy, I’ll put on an ice pack while doing my stomach crunches.”) In a couple of sentences, he establishes exactly who this man is: superficial, materialistic, and narcissistic. (“After I remove the ice pack, I use a deep-pore cleanser lotion. In the shower, I use a water-activated gel cleanser, then a honey-almond body scrub.”) Bale’s self-assured delivery is like the misdirection in a good magic trick; only in the final scenes do we begin to realize how unreliable a narrator Bateman really is. He seems like a man in absolute control of himself and his surroundings. The deceptively levelheaded voiceover makes that transition from crazy to absolutely, 100-percent batshit crazy that much more surprising and effective.
1980s consumerism and competition
Tasha: The novel American Psycho openly satirizes the shallow, smug consumer lifestyle of its era—it’s specifically rooted in the materialism and accompanying frustration that Ellis was seeing in his own life when he wrote the book in the 1980s. In those scenes where Bateman goes on about his skin products, his workout regimen, his expensive Cerruti sheets, his “decent table” at Espace, his “Valentino suits and Oliver Peoples glasses,” and so forth, he’s revealing how products, and brand-based prestige define his life. But the center of the film is the sequence where he and his co-workers compare business cards, and Bateman breaks into a cold, frantic sweat over the idea that someone else’s card is more tasteful, more expensive, more watermarked than his. This is a society of people entirely distinguished by the things they purchase and present to represent themselves, and it’s never possible to be rich enough or to buy enough things, because someone else is always coming along with a newly purchased card, now on a thicker cardstock, or with an unavailable-until-now watermark. The standards for what’s trendy are always shifting (“Nobody goes there anymore,” Bateman sneers about the restaurant that’s so in-demand, he can’t get a reservation there), and it’s impossible to keep up, which makes the whole pursuit of quality through ownership impossible and empty. As Bateman keeps saying, he has physical presence but doesn’t really exist himself. That’s because he’s an amalgam of purchased products, none of which ultimately mean anything.
Keith: At one point in American Psycho’s development history, it was to have been directed by David Cronenberg and contained, per Ellis, no scenes in restaurants or clubs, and no onscreen violence. Oddly enough, I think that could have worked. If the focus was just on consumerism-as-aggression with the violence only suggested offscreen… Okay, let me rephrase. I think Cronenberg could have made that work, creating an atmosphere filled with sublimated violence and Darwinistic social jockeying. Some of Harron’s scenes capture the spirit of that anyway. These are characters who will find ways to get ahead, even—maybe especially—if it means hurting others, whether they’re drawing blood or not.
Scott: As much as the business-card scene is about status in a capitalist decade, it’s also about masculine aggression finding a new channel. This is how savagery manifests itself in the business world, through the warfare of business cards, restaurant reservations, and who has the most expensive suit. The film makes fine satirical hash over Bateman and company’s petty oneupmanship, but it’s all an extreme version of a common phenomenon: We’re not Vikings, we’re “civilized,” and in lieu of settling beefs with swords and fists, it comes out in another form. (An American Psycho of 2014 would be all subtweets.)
Tasha: Good point, Scott, and an awful lot of that masculine aggression does feel like subtweeting, in that all of the message is in the implication, not the actual words. Reading through the script online, so much of it sounds banal and boring, like eavesdropping on a bunch of strangers trying to make polite conversation without listening to each other; it’s all name-dropping and food orders, dull social planning and business-world repetition. It’s the acid contempt in every line-reading in the film that makes it feel so aggressive and violent that it hardly feels like an extra step when Bateman’s knife comes out. When the actors can make “Do you have a dog?” or “I got an 8:30 res at Dorsia” sound like vicious verbal attacks on each other’s masculinity and worthlessness, it’s no wonder Bateman gets sweaty when someone actually openly insults him. Which brings me to something else I wanted to bring up here: What do you think about Bale’s performance? When I first saw him in this film, I thought he was perfect for the role, all urbane nerviness and banked danger. But after seeing him in so many less over-the-top roles, I found him a little phonier than I was prepared for this time around. He’s meant to be a phony—that’s part of the point, that his whole personality is a put-on. But I hadn’t realized on previous viewing that it’s so obvious.
Nathan: I’m glad you asked, Tasha. I went into this in my keynote, but masculinity, especially of the narrow manner found in American Psycho, is very much a performance; it’s about the right skin-care regimen and the right clothes and getting the right tables at the right restaurants and marrying the right women while simultaneously carrying on affairs with the right mistresses. In American Psycho, being a man is a patently ridiculous performance that entails being passionately invested in the wrong things (the stock and fonts of business cards, the quality of a haircut) and absolutely apathetic about the major things, like the “engagement” Patrick treats as if it’s as important and meaningful as those videotapes he’s always talking about returning. In that respect, the theatrical bigness of Bale’s performance makes perfect sense; there is no “there” there, just the mindless mania to get ahead, fit in, and indulge the hungers that are his sole reason for being. I also like the way Bale’s performance internalizes so many of Tom Cruise’s mannerisms and tics, like the eternal smirk and the nervous, jerky laughter. It’s a big, big performance, but one I love. Also, it’s Christian Bale we’re talking about here. Subtlety and understatement are not the man’s forte.
Matt: Bale is a very physical actor, and as he’s proven time and again, he’s more than willing to do extreme things to his body if he thinks it will help a role. For American Psycho, he became a gym rat, working out obsessively until he developed an absurdly chiseled physique. But that wasn’t enough for Bale; he actually underwent dental surgery to fix his, as he put it, “very English teeth,” because they didn’t fit Bateman’s conceited image. Sometimes these sorts of extreme bodily transformations strike me as unnecessarily showy, less for the film itself, and more for the actor to talk about in interviews and awards speeches. They work in this case, though; a man as vain and self-obsessed as Patrick Bateman wouldn’t be caught dead with anything less than a six-pack and a glistening, white smile.
Bret Easton Ellis
Scott: Ellis’ book was a cultural flashpoint, so much so that the story of how it was received—dropped by its original publisher, reviewed by The New York Times under the headline “Snuff This Book,” booed by Gloria Steinem and other feminists, yet hailed as a masterpiece in some corners—is almost more compelling than the book itself. Ellis’ graphic depictions of violence, as deliberately thorough and monotonous in their inventory as his descriptions of consumer products, were the main sticking point for many. But the book remains a potent allegory about capitalist excess, and the rawest expression of Ellis’ career-long interest in the emptiness of wealth, the fleeting rush of pleasure, and the howling vacancy of modern life. In adapting it to the screen, Harron and her co-screenwriter, Guinevere Turner, had to capture the spirit of the book but not the letter. But they’ve accomplished more than that: Their American Psycho gets some distance and perspective on the material, and refines it into a more cohesive, disciplined statement. A movie like The Rules Of Attraction captures the Ellis voice much more capably, but Harron and Turner show the value in interpreting books rather than transcribing them, and theirs is a separate—but still complementary—work of art.
Tasha: Agreed. I just went through this for Movie Of The Week, comparing Clueless and the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma to Jane Austen’s Emma, and I didn’t want to repeat the point this soon, but the same lessons apply: A literal, faithful, respectful adaptation of Ellis’ book would have been disastrous. It’s a droning, exhausting novel with entire chapters devoted to Bateman’s elaborate music reviews and torture/murder sessions, making art and death just as tedious and hollow as Bateman’s thoughts on skin-care regimens, and beating down any sense of authentic emotion through repetition, apathy, and irony. Ellis seems deeply devoted to evoking and examining nihilism, amorality, unsatisfying hedonism, and smugness (see also his novels Less Than Zero, The Rules Of Attraction, etc.) Turner and Harron respect the book by channelling just the tiniest tastes of Ellis’ repeated gimmicks into the screenplay—one of those deadly long music reviews is trimmed down to Bateman’s manic monologue about Huey Lewis before he kills Paul Allen, for instance—but their version is so much more dynamic and playful than Ellis’. No wonder he doesn’t respect it.
Nathan: Ellis has made some patently obnoxious comments in interviews about the necessity of the male gaze in cinema, but to me, part of what makes American Psycho so subversive and successful as satire is the distance and detachment the female filmmakers bring to the material. I love that Turner, a lesbian, is cast as the only woman in the film with the chutzpah to flat-out laugh derisively at Bateman; she has that wonderful scene where she cackles at Bateman for being a manly man who apparently owns more than one Whitney Houston album, and rhapsodizes about them at length. Ellis has come clean in recent years about how much he identifies with Bateman, so there’s a weirdly meta element to a character played by the film’s female screenwriter calling Ellis’ psychotic avatar-character on his bullshit.
Keith: American Psycho is the only Ellis book I’ve read, and I remember having two contradictory thoughts when I finished: It’s a brilliant idea for a short story stretched to the length of a novel, but it also kind of has to be that long, monotonous, and oppressively vile to make its point. One thing I admire about the film is that it gets to the same place in less than two hours and as you say, more distance. It’s Ellis without all the Ellis, which may be the best way to experience him. (Maybe I’m being unfair. Am I being unfair?)
Nathan: You are not being unfair, Keith, and I think I’m not alone in feeling like the film version of American Psycho fixes a lot of the problems of the book, particularly its ineffable Bret Easton Ellisosity. It’s that distance that makes it work, and it would be hard to imagine an alpha male like Oliver Stone, for example, seeing the character as clearly as Harron and Turner do.
Tasha: Keith’s not unfair, Nathan’s not alone, and Ellis is not amused. But given his identification with the character, I’m fine with admiring the playful, smirking version of this story more than his leadenly serious one.
Macho and misogyny
Keith: Much of the controversy that greeted American Psycho upon its publication in 1991 stemmed from the novel’s violence, particularly the scenes of violence toward women, which Ellis’ Patrick Bateman describes with the same loving attention to detail he brings to his thoughts on Versace clothing and the music of Huey Lewis And The News. It’s a bit easier today to see the satire lost on the book’s critics in 1991, when NOW spokesperson Tammy Bruce called Ellis “a confused, sick young man with a deep hatred of women who will do anything for a fast buck.” When it comes to relations between the sexes, Ellis doesn’t do himself any favors these days, but it doesn’t take much effort to see American Psycho as a film (and book) largely about men who are afraid of women. Like most of his colleagues, Bateman has a fiancée (Evelyn, played by Reese Witherspoon) who seems mostly there out of convenience, kept at a safe distance and pulled out when needed for social occasion. Theirs is an arrangement, not a relationship, and by all appearances a sexless one. Sex isn’t for girlfriends, it’s for interchangeable women—prostitutes and club girls—who can be used and discarded. The fact that Bateman sometimes kills them when he’s done just takes that idea to the next level.
Nathan: One of the ironies of American Psycho is that the men in it are exactly what they imagine women to be: vain, catty, obsessed with appearance and gossip, superficial, and all but interchangeable. Bateman is what would later be known as metrosexual, but the film doesn’t see a contradiction between his fussy, obsessive attention to preening, and his insatiable bloodlust. One of the most striking images in a film full of them is Bateman working out in an angry, aggressive frenzy while Texas Chainsaw Massacre plays in the background. This is how Bateman gets his rocks off, and an alpha male like him doesn’t have to answer to anybody, including the law, decency, or the dictates of a conscience he does not possess.
Scott: With regard to misogyny, American Psycho is a case where, as Kathryn Bigelow said in defense of the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, “depiction does not equal endorsement.” (How ironic that Ellis called out Bigelow in a misogynistic tweet.) In the context of a serial-killer story, the objectification and murder of female victims doesn’t alone qualify a work as misogynist, and in the context of a satire about a serial killer, it becomes harder still for such accusations to stick. But in terms of the movie version, the presence of Harron and Turner effectively neutralized one of the main arguments against the book, and the film is more thoughtful about how women figure into Bateman’s particular pathology. As Keith said, it’s a film about men who are afraid of women, but it’s also about how men confine women to certain roles, assign them different values, and deny them agency.
Violence and dark comedy
Matt: American Psycho’s violence is so brutal, and Patrick Bateman’s demeanor is so cold and sadistic, that it’s easy to overlook how funny the film can be. I certainly did; when I saw it for the first time more than a decade ago, I didn’t think much of it as a comedy. This week, I laughed a lot more at the film, and particularly at Bateman, as his carefully cultivated exterior of physical perfection begins to crack under the strain of covering up his crimes. Despite his daily ritual of creams and moisturizers, by the end of the film, he’s been reduced to a twitchy, sweaty mess. The cops may not catch him (possibly because he imagined the murders), but psychologically speaking, the joke’s on him.
I also liked Bateman’s flimsy excuse to leave any meeting early (“I have to go return some videotapes.”), and the fact that no one ever questions its legitimacy. It’s also hard not to chuckle when ATMs start instructing him to feed them stray cats. Some of this stuff may be in bad taste, but that doesn’t stop it from being funny. On a related subject: Does anyone have any thoughts on Huey Lewis And The News’ Sports? How does Patrick Bateman rate as a music critic?
Tasha: “I don’t really like… singers.” That attempt to put off detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe) by dismissing Huey Lewis And The News in the lamest way possible is one of my favorite awkward-deadpan lines in a film full of them. There’s a lot of straight-up goofiness in American Psycho, stemming from the fact that virtually every word Bateman says out loud is ironic: He doesn’t care about most of what he’s professing to care about, and he doesn’t mean most of what he says, which makes it all even more heightened and ridiculous than the tone and circumstances already imply. And when he does say what he means—for instance, “I’m into murders and executions,” or, “My need to engage in homicidal behavior on a massive scale cannot be corrected,” people mishear or ignore him. The degree to which no one takes Bateman seriously, whether he’s faking seriousness or actually being serious, is both sad and funny, but it also keys us to not take the graphic violence any more seriously than we take Bateman’s position on Huey Lewis being “too black-sounding."
Keith: Bateman’s music criticism gives both the film and the novel some of their finest moments. His assessments are extremely insightful, but also skewed, grounded in what 1980s music consumers really valued, instead of what they thought they valued. So Lewis gets praised for losing the “new wave-y” elements in favor of “professionalism,” and for praising conformity via the so-square-it’s-really-really-square “Hip To Be Square.” There’s also a running gag about no one but Detective Kimball sharing Bateman’s taste. His ill-fated friend Elizabeth (Turner) can’t believe he actually listens to Whitney Houston, while Paul Allen (Jared Leto) demurs “They’re okay” when asked about Huey Lewis And The News. More than most decades, the 1980s seemed to produce artists that became extremely popular without stirring a lot of passion. You can buy No Jacket Required, you can even like it, but who could get excited about it? Bateman lives in that valley of dispassionate appreciation, valuing popularity as art’s ultimate purpose.
Nathan: One of my favorite moments in the film is also reportedly one of Ellis’ least favorite: that crazy sort-of moonwalk Bateman does just before killing Paul Allen. It’s easy to see why Ellis dislikes it: It crosses a line into bizarre physical comedy that he understandably felt should not have been crossed. But to me, it epitomizes the daring bigness and unabashed physicality of Bale’s performance. True, Ellis’ unused screenplay for American Psycho reportedly featured a musical number, but even he recoiled at having Bateman do the world’s whitest, weirdest, most awkward moonwalk—maybe because it’s an attention-grabbing moment that had nothing to do with him or his writing, and everything to do with Bale’s ballsy, intense, unique take on Ellis’ most famous creation.
Don’t miss yesterday’s keynote on how Harron and Turner captured the world of Patrick Bateman by standing outside of it. And come back tomorrow for Tasha Robinson on whether Bateman’s killing spree is real, and whether it actually matters.