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American Psycho

American Psycho

Directed by Mary Harron

What does Patrick Bateman want? He wants to be noticed; he wants the best business card, the swankiest apartment, the best looking girlfriend, the most money, and the best connections. To be the best, is to be noticed. This seems to directly contradict his similar compulsion to conform. He does not adopt any quirk or buy any album or suit unless it is popularly accepted as normal (normal in his world). Is this the genesis of the American dream, to be unique and to be assimilated? Are these contradictions enough to inspire Bateman’s violent compulsions?  Listen to the way he describes music; the expressions of two-bit writers for generic and popularly consumed revue publications. Being popular, consumable and unchallenging are at the core of his ability to appreciation the world that surrounds him. It perhaps reveals a mindset that reaches far wider than Bateman’s social stratosphere, it is not only men in Bateman’s situation who perpetuate violence and materialism, it is a complex structure that encompasses nearly every facet of American life. This is perhaps even a meta-critique of the popular reception of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, one that was unwilling to look beyond the superficial to see what lies below the surface. That perhaps there was more discomfort with the inability to understand Ellis’ point, then the actual content of his situations.
American Psycho becomes increasingly distressing as we fall deeper into Bateman’s world. The broad parody and satire is inherently appealing. It is absurd and cloying, but as the bodies begin to pile up, Bateman’s neurosis only deepens, as does the horror. He does not get better at what he does, if anything, he becomes increasingly sloppy. There is speculation that perhaps he didn’t kill anyone at all or that he wants to get caught, does it even matter? He believes he has murdered dozens of people, why should we be inclined to doubt him? He kills Paul Allen because he wants to be him, but Paul Allen is a nobody. Whose word do we have that he’s alive? The lawyer? Dafoe suggests that people had been mistaking another man for him in London, just as people consistently mistake Bateman for someone else. Even in the opening scene Bateman mistakes someone else for Allen. They are homogenized to the point of non-existence. As Bateman becomes more compulsive, he becomes more frightening and more identifiable. He actually rises above the ranks, but only the audience is really privy to his difference, to everyone else he is just a face in the crowd. He mentions even forcing some of his victims to watch his other murders; he wants them to know why he is special.

There is a moment when Bateman makes reference to our inability in the modern age to empathize with others, this, however is not a loss because we can always empathize with ourselves. What if we are dead inside, there is nothing to feel… but is Bateman really dead inside? He is disturbed, if not by the world that surrounds him, by himself. Is that self-empathy? I am not sure we can have empathy for ourselves without a great deal of self-pity or self-loathing. That is no longer empathy though, unless you understand the pity along with all other prevailing emotions.

There are very few women writers and directors in horror (even less so then in most other genres) and there are so few women working in film as it is. It’s difficult not to look at Harron as the director and try to understand what she has brought to one of the most controversial works of art in the past 50 years, especially one that is often criticized for its apparent misogyny. What of the sexualized violence in this film? What of the women?  Most of them strike me as being very sad, as sad or even sadder than Bateman. Perhaps there is something about this that upsets Bateman. In the popular arts, it’s not unusual that male writers will adopt female protagonists and sublimate their “feminine” values and emotions onto this theoretical character. If the kind of feelings that are most often sublimated are those of perceived weakness, is this why Bateman seeks to destroy them? Does this somehow work on a wider scale? The women seem a bit more aware of Bateman’s strangeness. The men are blind to Bateman’s reality, while the women are frighteningly aware of it, though they are also unable to stop him. Vulnerability seems to attract Bateman, but it also repulses him. This inherent contradiction runs deep in the film, and until he is able to come to terms with this split, there is no end in sight for his violence.

Justine Smith