‘American Psycho’ brilliantly ambiguous & inappropriately funny
Upon release in 1991 and in the intervening years, many words have been spoken of Bret Easton Ellis’ bestselling novel American Psycho; gruesome, disgusting, misogynistic, ultimately un-filmable. Mainly because of its stream of consciousness narrative, hideous sexual violence and highly sexist sinister underscore, Ellis’ offbeat psychological character study of a madman was material apparently inaccessible to the machinations of filmmaking. Much like, it should be noted, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. As was touched upon by Ellen Barkin in a retrospectively amusing twitter war regarding Ellis’s comments on Kathryn Bigelow, an argument could be made that Mary Harron’s 2000 adaptation represented a suitable improvement on his best known work. What initially seemed impossible to bring to the screen, ironically, was turned into a fantastic and cult favorite black comedy by agents of the superior sex reduced to the status of meat sacks by the novel’s content.
Co-penning a script with Guinevere Turner (who also stars) as well as taking the reigns of direction, Harron’s work gives a finer balance and structure to the tale of 80’s Wall Street yuppy Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale in his breakthrough role as an adult actor) as he takes us through his bizarre and mentally unhinged lifestyle, an existence marrying soul-selling behavioral modification in pursuit of social acceptance within his madly rich and spoilt clique to acts of depraved wish fulfillment, from sadomasochistic encounters with prostitutes to wholesale murder of the homeless. Material that was disturbing and perplexing in literature form takes on a strange and darkly funny tone when presented in front of the camera, with Bateman’s self-confessed existential emptiness giving us a protagonist whose attitudes and opinions towards life veer from obvious cliché when discussing politics, to near idiot savant obsession with his music collection, namely Huey Lewis and the News, and the dreaded importance of restaurant reservations at Darcia, all to hilariously surreal effect.
Of course, this isn’t a simple story and couldn’t ever have aspired to be, nor should it. The beauty of the ambiguity in Ellis’s work is transferred to the screen as dutifully as the instantly quotable dialogue. It provides a great logical quandary for the viewers, who have to make a key choice as to whether Bateman’s psychosis is genuinely murderous and extroverted, or merely delusional to hallucinogenic proportions. If it is to the former that one subscribes, it presents Bateman’s surroundings as equally immoral and hysterically apathetic, as he is able to evade capture or exposure thanks to the inability of colleagues to overcome their self obsession long enough to succinctly and consistently put names to faces. Either we are treated to pure fantasy on the part of the villain protagonist, witnessing acts far too absurd to ever be real, or this is a greatly misanthropic fable set in a cold and dark world that almost justifies the existence of such a deeply depraved figure. Brilliantly, we can never be too sure which it is. As Bateman himself states in his closing remarks; “This confession has meant nothing”.
Given his attitude towards those in his life, it’s no wonder that Bateman is the star of his own show with no other soul given little more than a series of fleeting cameos by his side. While his fiancée Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) would provide a character crux in a very differently accented interpretation, here she is somehow less likeable than the axe crazy man she is engaged to as her shallow nature and selective blindness allow Pat to indulge his vices with street walker Christie (Cara Seymour) and hold an unemotional, painkiller fuelled affair with manic depressive Courtney Rawlinson (Samantha Mathis). The woman in his life who ultimately provides Bateman with the most food for thought is his enamored but clearly insecure assistant Jean (Chloe Sevigny), and there is a strangely cathartic moment when he refuses to follow through and invite her into his horrific other life, a move that would presumably have been fatal for her. Though highly unstable, there’s an unspoken suggestion that the main character is perhaps choosing to act without soul rather than being doomed to it.
This subtle subtext also finds a brilliant exponent in the form of Willem Dafoe’s police detective, investigating the disappearance of Bateman’s colleague Paul Allen (Jared Leto), who of course has been cut up in to little pieces. With each of his visits, Dafoe holds a very different card and displays a wildly fluctuating demeanor, hinting that he is firmly on Bateman’s track, only for him to retreat back into mysterious uncertainty. The difference in tone or narrative between this and the archetypal criminal-investigator dynamic is both unsettling and, in keeping with the rest of the film, very funny. The ridiculousness of Bateman’s immunity from the law provides many of the best laughs, such as when the broker is caught carrying Allen’s body out of his apartment by smitten colleague Luis Carruthers (Matt Ross), who promptly ignores the obvious and compliments Bateman’s choice of hold-all.
While circumstances provide laughs, so does the bizarre of recurring lines (“I have to return some videotapes”) and a great ear for easily quotable exchanges and one-liners (“Why don’t you cool it on the anti-Semitic remarks?”, “We were watching ‘Oh Africa Brave Africa’, it was a laugh riot”) which makes scene viewing an absolute joy even without context. Such is the popularity of the film with a devoted fan base that virtually every word spoken by Bateman has been uploaded to YouTube, and not without just cause. The brilliant deadpan delivery of Bale ensures this, and the British actor arrives on the Hollywood scene in some style with a performance he has rarely equaled, even in with his Oscar winning The Fighter turn. Mood-swinging violently between pompous composure and psychotic rage, Bale owns the role and sets out a blueprint for all of his future works. There’s also a small degree of amusement to be hand in comparing the virtues of Pat and Bruce Wayne, both highly rich and attractive men hiding true intent and purpose behind a veneer.
One almost expects the protagonist to grab a victim by the lapels and growl “I’m BATE MAN!”
The irony in a work infamous for its sexist tendencies being so successfully re-imagined by two women as a liberally amoral and riotously funny black-black comedy should not be lost on adoring audiences, though it does perhaps prove a disservice to a film which stands strongly on its own two legs. Displaying intelligence and depth as well as providing hilarity and inappropriate ecstasy, Mary Harron’s film is a slickly scripted and masterfully directed outing benefiting from the open minded approach of its audience and the astonishing work of a lead actor making a firm statement on his obvious talents. Un-filmable? Once again, somebody proves how meaningless a word that truly is.
You’ll have to excuse me now, I have a lunch meeting with Cliff Huxtable at the Four Seasons in twenty minutes…