Canadian filmmaker Mary Harron snagged the distinct pleasure of helming the film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. The director even beat out Oliver Stone, apparently. It’s her pulse and her sense of the source material that really helps American Psycho amaze and astonish as a motion picture. Sure, the novel gets a lot of the credit for the gore and the good times, but it’s Harron’s approach that so clearly offers this another dimension in social commentary. Lesser hands would have missed the meat.
That meat is the unmistakable rivalry that lies in the blood of the Alpha Male. The novel satirically zeroed in on the conception of competition among men, introducing its “hero” as the extension of this competitive spirit and as the organic outcropping of isolation and, according to the author, a “consumerist void.”
Christian Bale is Patrick Bateman, a young male executive. We’re introduced into his narcissistic world through inconsistent narrations by Bateman. He tells us about his preparation for work in the morning, how many crunches he does, his hygiene routine. This is all very exacting because the rivalry is everything in Bateman’s world. It’s about getting the best restaurant reservations, about having the best business card.
Bateman is, without question, a yuppie. He likes Huey Lewis and the News, for instance, and not that “New Wave” crap either. He’s engaged to another yuppie named Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), but he feels nothing for her. He cheats relentlessly and picks up hookers and kills them sometimes. Other times he just maims them or something. When he can’t kill a woman, a homeless guy will do. A cat seems tempting. The subtle emergence of Bateman’s violent nature is both unexpected and completely expected.
Harron handles the material elegantly and allows the raw animalism of Bateman to emerge as it should. It flows through his veins and comes out like an explosion, usually after a disappointment. In the hyper-competitive world of Wall Street, there are many disappointments and Bateman’s violence extends from his body like an arm. It’s unavoidable, just like his slipping sanity.
It’s hard to determine if American Psycho is the tale of a man going crazy or if it’s the tale of a man having already long gone crazy. My money’s on the latter. Harron seems to lean that way too, with the considerable time spent talking about restaurant reservations serving as cues. How much time do the characters spend sitting around being rich, being better? How much time do they spend sitting in silent competition with one another?
Bale is fantastic, absolutely fantastic, at drawing this out. He brings unique charisma to the role, generating a character in which we find something charming and something to cheer for right alongside the awful, unavoidable truth. His use of containment helps offset the utter insanity his character has lurking within and, when he puts on the raincoat and start jabbering on about Huey, it’s hard not to simultaneously smile and cringe.
Harron’s American Psycho is a brilliant piece of work that deserves to be seen. It isn’t particularly graphic, but it is incredibly disturbing in its dissection of Bateman. Better, though, is its relentless chase of the ultimate outcome of materialism, greed and narcissism when set to Whitney Houston music. If there’s a more chilling and accurate indictment of the rivalry among men, I haven’t seen it yet.