On the surface, American Psycho may not appear to be the most heinous of oversights when it comes to a back catalogue of films one is yet to see, and yet I couldn’t help but feel that this was one of the most deserving films on my list. While it does not have the mainstream success of The Godfather or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mary Harron’s film adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel has very much earned its spot in popular culture, spawning enough spoofs and memes to make a frequent Redditor like myself feel a tad guilty for not being up to speed.
The film tells the story of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a Wall Street yuppie in the late 80s who is equal parts perfectionist, materialist and sadist. He is cold, disillusioned and unhinged, fluctuating abruptly between his mundane, cog-in-the-machine lifestyle and flashes of extreme violence. It is a disturbing and satirical stab at the yuppie culture, which seems as relevant today as it did during the time in which American Psycho is set. Every one of the major characters found in the film, with the exception of Det. Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe), is a personality-devoid ‘suit’: AmEx in hand, trophy bride in arm, with more concern for the intricacies of a business card than the welfare of their loved ones. There is a common motif that runs throughout the film whereby none of the work colleagues actually seem to know who the other person is, constantly mixing up names and faces, echoing just how replaceable the young men are.
At the centre of it all, and without a doubt the most enjoyable element of the film, is Bale’s performance as Bateman. In the enunciation of his line deliveries he exudes a complete sense of falsity — confidently overacting with a profound sense of pseudo self-worth which doesn’t falter at all. His monologues are often flat — whether he is orchestrating a threesome with two terrified prostitutes, or divulging in the intricacies of the songwriting techniques found in the music of Genesis, you cannot help but hang on to every word as he navigates fluidly between the mundane and the lurid.
And then, of course, there’s the small issue of him murdering everyone.
Throughout the film there is enough ambiguity given to the viewer to question whether or not the killings are actually taking place completely within Bateman’s mind, but to be honest, that doesn’t take away from the fact that these scenes are completely gruesome. Bale breaks from the yuppie persona into a maniacal, high-energy psychopath — which is, ironically, the closest thing to a relatable human emotion the character displays. Seemingly nobody is safe, from work colleagues, prostitutes, the homeless and people whom he generally doesn’t like, Bateman makes use of an array of alarmingly creative ways to butcher his victims to satisfy his fetishistic desires.
It seems horrible to say, but there is a great sense of relief in seeing Bateman break into the role of an antihero just to have something close to a human emotion to cling on to. As the events of the third act unfold, Bateman is seen to be in a frenzy, panicking and almost frightened at the things he has done. I almost felt myself feeling sympathy for this mass-murdering psychopath as he confesses to murdering almost 20 people to his lawyer through tears, gasping for breath. While depictions of serial killers in films are often calculating and malevolent, there is something absurdly tragic about seeing a young man in his prime being driven to madness as a result of the grind of modern, yuppie life.
Undeniably, the film is dominated by Bale. This is not necessarily a bad thing given how excellent of a performance it is, although some of the supporting cast are criminally underused. I was holding out hope that we would see more of Willem Dafoe, whose presence always piques my interest, but no avail. There are some great moments to be found with the ensemble, however, including a scene which can only be described as a yuppie penis-measuring contest, where a circle of characters whips out their business card in succession with increasing intricacy and frivolity, leaving other members of the group utterly emasculated. It is a memorable and significant scene which fully encapsulates just how far removed from the worries of society these men are. Real first world problems.
I would say I enjoyed American Psycho. It is an effective satire on a culture obsessed with the material, and the central performance is astounding. Simultaneously frustrating, horrifying and darkly cathartic, the film certainly is not for everyone and probably isn’t the kind of thing you want to watch if you are predisposed to disillusionment or have had a particularly bad day at the office. But some day when you are feeling psychologically stable and open to a good thriller, definitely be sure to give it a look.