Looking back at American Psycho

As Christian Bale dons his Batman costume for the last time, we look back at one of the actor's key films: 2000’s American Psycho…

In April 1992, author Bret Easton Ellis was barred from the opening of Disneyland Paris. This strange act on the part of the Walt Disney Corporation marked the zenith of an increasingly hysterical public media reaction to American Psycho, published the previous year, which included ranting reviews, bans in Australia, and death threats directed at both author and publishers.

The feminist group NOW (National Organisation for Women) described American Psycho as “the most misogynistic communication” it had yet encountered, while in a US bookstore, a feminist activist threw a bucket of blood over copies of the book. In reviews, such words as “pornography”, “artless”, “repulsive” and “schlock” were a common sight – The New York Times even ran a headline above its review stating, “Snuff this book: don’t let Bret Easton Ellis get away with murder”.

Although condemned for its extreme violence, such sequences are comparatively brief when viewed against the rest of the book, which, for the most part, is an 80s-set satire about a wealthy, narcissistic young New Yorker who happens to also be a serial killer.

Long, often painfully funny scenes involve Patrick Bateman’s trips to parties and nightclubs, his interactions with colleagues and Wall Street rivals (Bateman’s an employee at investment banking firm Pearce & Pearce), with occasional monologues about clothes, working out, cameras and Genesis (Invisible Touch is “an epic meditation on intangibility”).

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Bateman’s atrocities are sporadic, and arrive like spikes in the novel’s intentionally bland narrative – an early 90s reader picking American Psycho up to see what all the fuss was about would have been no doubt sobered by just how sharply rendered and graphic these scenes are.

American Psycho, driven by its strong sales and even stronger critical backlash, was optioned shortly after it was published – leading to widespread debate about whether the graphic sex and violence present in the book could ever be transposed to film at all.

Ellis himself was originally lined up to adapt his own novel for the screen, with Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, From Beyond) set to direct. Later, David Cronenberg was mentioned as a possible replacement for Gordon when the previous project fell apart, with Brad Pitt suggested for the role of Patrick Bateman.

Needless to say, Bateman was a tricky character to cast. Although his frequent monologues and obvious amorality could give an actor plenty of artistic scope, most Hollywood stars would understandably balk at the prospect of portraying a character capable of torture and dismemberment.

When director May Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) took over the project for Lions Gate, various popular actors were approached. Edward Norton turned the role down, while Leonardo DiCaprio was attached at one point, only to be detached after his request that Bateman be made less unsympathetic resulted in Harron’s brief protest resignation.

What American Psycho needed was a talented young actor who wasn’t yet part of the Hollywood establishment; an actor who could portray the ugliest parts of Patrick Bateman’s psyche without wondering what his fanbase might make of it all. In Christian Bale, then best known, perhaps, for his roles in Empire Of The Sun and Velvet Goldmine, Harron found the perfect embodiment of Patrick Bateman – an actor capable of portraying all of his beauty, absurdity and evil.

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With co-writer Guinevere Turner (who also turns up in the movie as a Bateman victim), Mary Harron remained true to the sly spirit of Ellis’ text, while at the same time excising much of its gruesome excess. Although this may appear to miss the point of the novel – shock value is, after all, a major part of American Psycho’s allure – it actually gives the book’s themes more room to breathe. Shorn of its goriest moments, it’s now more apparent than ever just how savagely funny and political the book is – something frequently overlooked in almost all of its shrieking contemporary reviews.

As in the book, Patrick Bateman is a 27-year-old banker at New York’s Pierce & Pierce. It’s 1987, and Bateman’s life appears to be precisely mapped out. He’s wealthy, handsome, successful, and engaged to the similarly well-bred Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon). He engages in faux intellectual debates with his wealthy friends, who regard him as “The voice of reason, the boy next door.” But beneath Bateman’s calm exterior, a sociopathic killer lurks.

Bateman’s appetite for murder is as insatiable as his hunger for sex, grooming products and designer suits; human lives, it seems, are merely something else to be consumed. Gradually, Bateman’s murderous hobby begins to seep into the rest of his life. In a fit of rage, he murders a work colleague, Paul Allen (Jared Leto), possibly because his business cards are better printed than Bateman’s. And as enigmatic cop Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe) begins sniffing around Pierce & Pierce, hunting for clues as to Allen’s whereabouts, it seems that Bateman’s mask may really be about to slip.

Both the book and the movie present 80s New York as a dystopian nightmare; Bateman lives in a parallel reality of beautiful yet vapid people. Surface appearance is all that matters – never mind that its male characters are sexist, racist, hypocritical bores; what’s important is that they’re rich, good-looking, and clad in the best clothes.

Bateman and his colleagues are rendered almost identical in their broad-rimmed spectacles and expensive suits, and frequently fumble over each other’s identities. In the pursuit of self-interest, the characters in American Psycho find themselves utterly apart from everyone else; conversation occasionally turns to foreign affairs, with gloriously ill-informed results, but their real concerns lie in which fancy restaurant they can get a reservation with, or who’s sleeping with whom.

Harron clearly enjoys poking fun at the trappings of 80s success, just as the book did: the fur coats, pet pigs, Walkmans and pretentious restaurants are all present and correct. And in Christian Bale’s mouth, Ellis’ hilarious musings about the relative merits of Huey Lewis & The News and Phil Collins sound more delicious and preposterous than ever.

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Bale’s performance is a sublime one, perfectly capturing the conflicting aspects of Bateman’s character – his pomposity and arrogance, as well as his envy and insecurity; his rage and his ineffectuality.

It’s unsurprising that, when looking around for someone to play Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Bruce Wayne in 2003, Bale was the name that ultimately rose to the top of Christopher Nolan’s list. There are numerous parallels between Bateman and Wayne, after all; both are apparently shallow men from privileged backgrounds, and both have a morally ambiguous, darker side – they simply have a different way of expressing it.

Notices were mixed when American Psycho was first released in 2000. Although it wasn’t without its champions, and Bale’s performance was repeatedly praised, critics seemed – ironically – almost palpably disappointed at how low-key and lacking in violence the film proved to be. Others bemoaned the movie’s descent into chainsaw-wielding excess in its second half, something which is admittedly jarring, although deliberately so, since it feeds into the deviant fantasy world Bateman revels in.

American Psycho isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s one full of perfect performances (its supporting cast, which also includes Chloe Sevigny, Justin Theroux and Samantha Mathis, is excellent). There are individual scenes which hum with brilliance, such as the little shimmy Bateman indulges in before he cleaves Jared Leto in two with an impossibly shiny axe. The unforgettable business card comparison sequence, which leaves Bateman sweaty-browed with jealousy. Bateman’s panicked confession to his lawyer’s answerphone (“Tonight I had to kill a lot of people…”), his repeated cries of, “I have to return some videotapes!”, not to mention his chilling closing monologue.

Aside from being a sharp and violent critique of male behaviour, or a skewering of the greed of the 80s yuppie phenomenon, American Psycho is an exploration of wealth, consumerism and isolation. The movie could easily be watched with Steve McQueen’s Shame as a double-bill; both are about a New York dweller left high and dry by their environment, whose wealth can buy them everything but happiness or a sense of connection, and whose search for gratification leads them into their own individual nadir.

It’s this aspect of Harron’s movie which makes it a modern, relevant film; although set in the 80s, it touches on themes that are as current today as they ever were. The cosseted clique of Bateman and his friends has spilled out from a square mile in New York to the world at large. The need to network, consume and conform is now something almost all of us experience. In reality, the Me Decade never went away.

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