Seen today, a mere decade after its release, the 1999 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho looks quaint for a provocation. It’s many shocks short of the likes of New Cult Canon entries like Audition or Irreversible, and more genteel than the torture porn of the Saw and Hostel franchises, which brought extreme cinema into the mainstream. None of those movies won widespread acceptance, but they make it a little hard to grasp, from today’s perspective, just what a toxic (albeit strangely alluring) property American Psycho was in the ’90s. The battle lines over Ellis’ novel—and over Ellis in general, really—had already been drawn, aided by a tortured history that involved Simon & Schuster withdrawing American Psycho prior to its 1991 publication, apocalyptic reviews, hate mail, a feminist outcry over the book’s graphic scenes of violence and sexual abuse toward women, and censorship in various countries. Then the movie version was passed around like a hot potato, too, cycling through iterations featuring such directors as Stuart Gordon, David Cronenberg, and Oliver Stone, and actors like Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, and, most absurdly, Leonardo DiCaprio post-Titanic.
Some of those director-actor combinations sound tantalizing—for the record, I’d love to have seen the black-and-white, ratings-defying mayhem Gordon reportedly had in mind for it, and Cronenberg seems like an obvious choice—but in writer Guinevere Turner and co-writer/director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol), American Psycho landed in the right hands. It was always going to be a problematic adaptation, for reasons other than shock value; the jagged rhythms of Ellis’ book—with long disquisitions on pop music and consumerist minutiae punctured by equally detailed, borderline-pornographic descriptions of savage violence—simply couldn’t be filmed without alteration. And the impossibility of reproducing Ellis’ effects on the screen naturally diminishes the film’s power, even before a few other problems start to surface.
Still, the Turner/Harron team-up immediately went a long way toward defusing the charges of misogyny that dogged the book, which weren’t entirely fair anyway. (Whenever groups of any kind, from the National Organization For Women to the American Family Association, get up in arms about a work of art, they almost always mistake the author’s depiction of something offensive for an endorsement of it.) But mostly, the filmmakers handled the challenges of adapting American Psycho with unimpeachable intelligence and good taste, turning it into a palatable, functional narrative while keeping much of the language and spirit of Ellis’ work intact. It may be a flawed film, but it’s a miraculously shrewd book-to-screen translation. Of course, that didn’t stop half the critics from panning it anyway, this being Ellis and all. (See also:The Rules Of Attraction.)
They also found the right Patrick Bateman in Christian Bale, who plays the deranged ’80s Wall Street yuppie/serial killer with a lusty élan that’s daring in its self-consciousness. Where most serial killers—and most people, period—operate under a rationale that makes sense to them, even if others find it crazy, Bale’s Bateman knows he’s insane, and turns his increasing hunger for violence and mayhem into a kind of performance art. He’s still affected by the world around him; the mere thought of not getting the right table at a trendy restaurant causes him to seize up in anxiety. But when he gets a chance to hold court, whether among his fraternity of smarmy young executives or the unwitting victims he lures to his high-rise apartment, Bale’s Bateman revels in his vanity and psychosis like Malcolm McDowell in the “Singin’ In The Rain” scene in A Clockwork Orange.
After a clever fake-out opening-credits sequence that conflates rivulets of blood with the raspberry drizzle on a fancy restaurant dessert, American Psycho starts sketching Bateman as an extreme manifestation of the “Masters Of The Universe” types found in Wall Street and the like. He frequents pretentious, overpriced nouveau-cuisine eateries with names like Espace and Arcadia, where menu items include such ornate offerings as squid ravioli in a lemongrass broth with goat-cheese profiteroles, or swordfish meatloaf with onion marmalade. He puts his meticulously sculpted face and body through a morning regimen that involves a thousand stomach crunches, a honey-almond body scrub, anti-aging eye balm, and an herb-mint facial mask that doubles as a visual metaphor. He also cares deeply, pathologically, and often hilariously about superficial status markers like designer suits, the Darwinian pursuit of Manhattan real estate, and in this justly celebrated scene, business cards.
It’s all enough to make a man go out and stab a homeless person just to unwind a little. But that killing—of a person so beneath Bateman’s contempt that he declares they have nothing in common—is merely an amuse-bouche for the feast of destruction to come. The main course: Paul Allen (Jared Leto), Bateman’s virtual doppelgänger in every aspect of his appearance, only better-looking, with a better apartment, a better position in their company, and, of course, a better business card. As Bateman perpetuates the mistaken impression that he’s someone else, he meets Paul for dinner at a near-abandoned Mexican cantina—oh, the horrors of a non-trendy or past-trendy restaurant—and softens him up for the kill. (My favorite throwaway exchange in the movie: Waiter: “Would you like to hear today’s specials?” Bateman: “Not if you want to keep your spleen.”) Back at his apartment, Bateman has his adversary caught like a wounded gazelle, but before bringing down the axe, he treats him to a defense of Huey Lewis and “Hip To Be Square”.
Generally speaking, American Psycho is a satire of the Reagan ’80s, which enabled Patrick Bateman types to indulge themselves endlessly while hailing a return to conservative values and asserting moral superiority over the rabble. Bateman asks the homeless man, “Why don’t you get a job?”, then parks himself in an office where he does little but watch TV and sexually harass his secretary. (As a cover to get an investigator off his back, Bateman fakes a business call that ends with him advising the person on the other end to tip his stylist.) He may have the darkest of dark sides, but his misanthropy is papered over by a Reagan-esque positivity that extends, most notably, to his love of peppy corporate pop songs like “Hip To Be Square” and “Sussudio,” which he admires in part for their professionalism. (It saddens me that a superior song like “Walking On Sunshine” had to be lumped in there for ironic purposes, though.)
But for as much as American Psycho scores off the fat target of ’80s excess, it endures more as an evergreen comment on vanity and entitlement. Ellis confessed in an interview that he was “living like Patrick Bateman,” slipping into a “consumerist void” that left him feeling isolated and alienated; though Bateman’s actions are extreme and horrific—and his personality vacant and distancing—it’s clear how he might represent a manifestation of our worst selves. Bateman’s obsessions over business cards, skin cleansers, and getting the right table are all amusingly petty, but creepily identifiable in a culture of brand names, status symbols, and tacit competition over who has the best clothes, house, and body. We all get jealous and indignant for silly reasons; we just don’t play around in anyone’s blood over it.
So who is Patrick Bateman? As I said earlier, Bale plays him like a performance artist, but he’s more specifically an actor, trying with only limited success to imitate a human being. He’s like the malevolent version of Daryl Hannah in Splash: He picks up bits of behavior and language from TV (“You look marvelous”; “I have a lunch meeting with Cliff Huxtable at the Four Seasons in 20 minutes”; “Just say no”), and can pass himself off as something other than an alien. He talks in voiceover about his “mask of sanity” slipping, but really, it’s a mask of humanity that dissolves as the movie progresses and he can no longer control the monster within. Even at his best, he’s never all that great at hiding his sick eccentricities; it’s just that his girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) and colleagues are too self-involved to notice.
Good as it is, American Psycho has a bad habit of being too explicit about Bateman’s psychological profile. The voiceover is faithful to passages in the book, but lines like “I have all the characteristics of a human being… but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion” or “there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory,” put far too fine a point on it. Yes, there’s a strong degree of self-consciousness to Bateman that’s reflected well in Bale’s performance, but there’s a difference between Bateman making statements like that in voiceover and bringing it up in everyday conversation. When Bateman says to Paul Allen, “Did you know I’m utterly insane?”, it’s part of a nasty running joke about the obliviousness of the people around him; when he confesses such things to the audience, it erases our capacity for interpretation.
Nevertheless, the film version of American Psycho has lingered in the culture, and for good reason; it isn’t the subversive, hair-raising provocation of Ellis’ book, but Turner, Harron, and Bale have interpreted it smartly and staged a handful of daring, memorable setpieces. From top to bottom, the film is as crisp and refined as one of Bateman’s exquisitely tailored suits: Andrzej Sukula’s photography matches the clean, bloodless modernism of Bateman’s apartment; Turner’s dialogue imports the stark snap of Ellis’ prose; and Bale plays a vain man without the vanity of an actor who might be inclined to make the audience like him more. “This confession has meant nothing,” Bateman says at the end, but the film extracts a great deal from this empty vessel.