American Psycho: A Vital Satire of Fragile Masculinity

Director Mary Harron and Christian Bale turned American Psycho into a feminist satire of masculinity. On its 20th anniversary, the movie is more timely than ever.

Christian Bale with an Axe in American Psycho
Photo: Lionsgate

Patrick Bateman is almost in tears during one of American Psycho’s most famous scenes. Bedecked in a trendy raincoat that he surely purchased at Barneys, and dancing to his favorite Huey Lewis and the News song off their “masterpiece” album, Fore!, the yuppie is at his wits’ end. No, it’s not because of the axe in his hand or the coworker whose skull he’s about to plant it in. It’s because nobody, especially that bastard Paul Allen, understands the depths of “Hip to Be Square.”

“It’s a song so catchy people probably don’t listen to the lyrics,” Patrick says with a shimmy before turning red. “But they should, because it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of friends, it’s also a personal statement about the band itself!” It’s also a personal statement about Patrick Bateman himself. No one but Patrick understands the full pleasures of conformity, and if you cross that line or dilute that pleasure, you might as well have a blade shatter your forehead. Twenty years later, this American Psycho vignette is still brutally vital. After all, more so than even during its ‘80s setting, it is now exceedingly hip to be square.

Released in 2000 after years of false starts and controversies that saw major A-list directors and movie stars come and go from the project, the American Psycho movie feels like kismet with its union of director Mary Harron and the then relatively obscure leading man, Christian Bale. As impossible as it is to now imagine anyone else playing Bateman besides Bale—who gives one of the all-time great performances of horror, comedy, and any other genre with his preening, luxuriant depiction of narcissistic privilege—Harron had to walk away from the project at one point to convince the studio that Bale was perfect for the homicidal Harvard grad.

But then Harron knew what she was looking for in a Patrick Bateman. Chances are she’s known multiple Patrick Batemans in her lifetime, which spans Oxford school days where she befriended Tony Blair to briefly being a member of the East Village film kibbutz commune, “Total Impact,” during the 1970s. She’s met men who think they’re gods, and it’s colored work that includes movies told from the vantage of women in the orbit of Andy Warhol, Charles Manson, and, yes, Patrick Bateman.

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Introduced in 400 pages of tedious vapidity and misogynistic mayhem, Bateman originally cut a bloody path across the literary scene when Bret Easton Ellis’ third novel was published in 1991. That book was so violent in its affectless first-person narration of the repeated torture and murder of women that publisher Simon & Schuster dropped Ellis as an author. While Vintage Books made sure American Psycho found its way to market, it could be argued the ugliness of Bateman’s world didn’t find true meaning until Harron and Bale gave him giddy life.

“It’s just as well a woman directed American Psycho,” Roger Ebert correctly observed in 2000. “She’s transformed a novel about bloodlust into a movie about men’s vanity.” And so she did. Whereas both the American Psycho novel and film are satires of the explosion of yuppie culture during the 1980s, and the consumerism that fueled it, Harron’s movie astutely turns its gaze from pitying Patrick Batemen’s psychology to gleefully mocking it and the general masculine arrogance that informs such a pathetic figure.

Indeed, Ellis initially suggested in the ‘90s that Bateman was inspired by his father, but in more recent years has admitted Batemen represented the emptiness of consumerism he embraced during the Reagan years. “[Bateman] was crazy the same way [I was],” Ellis said in 2010. “It initiated because of my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life. I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse.”

Whereas Ellis saw Bateman as a cautionary byproduct of the “tension” of his lifestyle, Harron and Bale turned him into a subject of ridicule. Many of the now iconic scenes in Harron and Guinevere Turner’s screenplay occur in the novel, but with added context on screen. The sequence where Patrick agonizes over his colleagues having better business cards than his “bone” colored one is given a humorous edge in the film when the cards look near identical and the sound effects of them coming out of their cases is similar to guns being lifted out of holsters in Westerns, with all the phallic subtext that implies. And as Bale stares aghast, bug-eyed and sweaty, his envy isn’t so much chilling as it is ludicrous. Similarly, the movie adds a wrinkle that Paul Allen—the Jared Leto character who is later slaughtered to the sounds of Huey Lewis—has the best card of all.

By contrast, there is little motivation for Patrick’s obsession over Paul Owen (not Allen) in the book. Yes, Paul mistakes Patrick for an identical-looking co-worker, but it’s a running joke in both film and novel that all the yuppies look the same and are mistaking one another for someone else. By adding jealousy over the business card and the fact that Paul has insta-reservations at the hyper trendy restaurant Dorsia, suddenly Harron makes Patrick’s murderous rage also seem petty and small. It’s penis envy. That female perspective might also be why Ellis doesn’t care for the American Psycho movie.

In recent years, Ellis has gone so far as to say “women can’t direct” and that in regard to Harron, “There’s something about the medium of film itself that I think requires the male gaze.” What Ellis is missing is that Harron’s adaptation adds a withering female gaze to his text and the vain psychology it revolves around.

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Screenwriter Turner said Ellis’ only complaint in 2000 was Bale’s improvised little dance to Huey Lewis, yet that is what makes the sequence so memorable. While literary Patrick Bateman spends whole chapters waxing poetic about Whitney Houston and Genesis, his cinematic counterpart uses those soliloquies to presage moments of perverse violence. The fact that he thinks he is deep, or deeply tortured, by his consumerist void is a wilting privilege.

This is made explicit even by his victims. In the novel, prostitute “Christie” (Cara Seymour) is just more “MEAT” (Patrick’s words) for him to play with—one in a long line of women he brutally tortures in vivid, clinical detail. Even their first night’s encounter on the page is primarily written as a paean to Bateman’s herculean sexual prowess. In the movie, however, we watch Bateman through Christie’s eyes as she laughs at him for flexing in the mirror and admiring his own physique mid-coitus. And during their second encounter that includes newcomer Elizabeth (Guinevere Turner), Turner, the screenwriter, lifts Bateman’s chapter-long ode to Whitney Houston and inserts it in the scene where Turner, the actor, takes the opportunity to laugh at him. “You actually listen to Whitney Houston?” Turner cackles at the protagonist she literally wrote for the screen. “You own a Whitney Houston CD?! More than one!?”

This is because she and Harron find Patrick a source of humor. He is not just a vessel of toxic masculinity or hegemonic masculinity—he’s the culmination of pure unfettered masculinity. All of his peers talk about being “raiders” and “killers,” Patrick just takes it one step further. Yet like the countless times we’ve seen women forced to dress on screen by male directors, Harron and Turner get to essay Patrick’s vanity by opening the movie with his robotic morning workout and shower routine. He isn’t a victim of consumerist culture; he is its perfect male product.

This subtle but profound shift of perception is what makes American Psycho a dark comedy classic and what keeps it scarily relevant. While both the novel and film satirize the excesses of ‘80s greed and corporate culture with its mass murdering Wall Street banker, that image of a predatory one percenter with a hyperactive sense of masculine entitlement hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s been empowered.

In both the book and movie, Patrick is obsessed with Donald Trump and his then-wife Ivana. Throughout the film, it’s a gag where Patrick keeps looking around exclusive restaurants or out limousine tinted windows, trying to spot the Trumps. It’s more explicit in the book where he has delusions about his Wall Street office transforming into Trump Tower, and daydreams between murder sprees about being invited to the Trump Christmas Party.

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It’s not hard to see how Patrick Bateman’s total black hole of morality has only become supercharged in the age where his idol is now leader of the free world. While our current president doesn’t attack women with a chainsaw, he does brag like one of Patrick Bateman’s Wall Street buddies about “grabbing them by the pussy,” and like Bateman, has a history of assault accusations trailing behind him. But that’s okay, both have a penchant for making up their own facts and trying to bend reality to their wills.

The story is now so eerily prescient that there’s even an unintentional political metaphor in the book. After ranting about how much he despises the pizza at restaurant Pastels, Patrick must walk it back when one of his friends tells him Donald Trump said Pastels has the best pizza in Manhattan.

“Listen, if the pizza at Pastels is okay with Donny… it’s okay with me,” Patrick grimaces with extreme self-loathing. One wonders if that hurt as much as pledging loyalty to the man who suggested your father killed JFK?

So American Psycho remains as joyfully timely in its parody of white male privilege now as it did then. That’s something to savor when one considers Lionsgate, at one point, fired Harron and Bale in order to get Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh off Titanic superstardom, to play Bateman in an Oliver Stone movie.

“Oliver Stone was going to direct it, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and we were bummed!,” Turner told Dazed in 2014. “We were working really hard on it and were really excited about how great it was going to be and it was going to be our script. Then, legend has it it, Gloria Steinem—the mother of all feminism—talked Leonardo DiCaprio out of being in the movie. She said, ‘Please, please, don’t do this to those girls. The eyes of all 13-year-old girls are upon you and you can’t play a guy who tortures and kills women.’ So he backed out and then Oliver Stone backed out, and it came back to Mary, ironically.”

It’s serendipitous too then that Steinem, one of the leaders of second wave feminism, out of a disdain for Ellis’ book had a hand in turning American Psycho into a feminist critique of masculinity. Because while Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko and his “greed is good” mantra became an aspiration for finance bros everywhere, and many still want to learn how DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort sells a pen by the end of Wolf of Wall Street, there is no vicarious wish fulfillment with Harron and Bale’s Bateman. We’ll just laugh as he grooves to Huey Lewis, happy to realize how sad these little men can be underneath their designer suits and power ties.

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