Thursday, 31 May 2007
American Psycho (2000) dir. Mary Harron
Starring: Christian Bale, Reece Witherspoon, Willem Dafoe
“American Psycho” can easily scare people off, the book is disturbing and the connection to the Bernardo case is morbid and sickening. Knowing these barriers to adapting the book into film Mary Harron and the producers took a big risk by amplifying the humour and turning the film into a black comedy. In fact, it’s a scathing black comedy, which in many ways sends up the book and all the hype surrounding it. The film is daring and brilliant.
Patrick Bateman is a 27-year-old Wall Street analyst. In his morose voiceover he intimately describes the minute details of his life and how they relate to his increasing dehumanized existence. He confesses to us he is soulless, empty and devoid of any human qualities other than greed and disgust. His life is spent hanging out in his office not doing work, attending lunches with his equally cold-blooded colleagues and conversing business-like with his wife, heartlessly played by Reece Witherspoon.
Bateman in his boredom with the world has found the only way he can invigorate his emotions is by killing people. He targets homeless people, prostitutes, his colleagues, his girlfriend etc to help him find meaning or truth in the world. Despite his best efforts, he never does, until a cop played by Willem Dafoe makes Bateman a prime suspect in the disappearance of one of his victims. Bateman continues his routine of working, lunching and killing, and now adds ‘avoid murder-charge’ to his to-do list. Bateman becomes more and more delusional until his life spirals inside itself and when dreams and reality merge with one another. By the end, we aren’t sure if Bateman even committed the murders, or if it was all in his head.
“American Psycho” commits a grave screenwriting error, Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner don’t provide a traditional through-line for the film or for Bateman as lead character. The film moves from one scene to another as a series of flatlined beats with no emotional peaks or valleys. Other than the Willem Dafoe subplot the scenes could easily have been shuffled and the film still would have made sense. But ironically this structure actually works. The environment is a fantasy world of the 1980’s – a perfect satirical representation of the ultra-conservative economics of the Reagan-era and Bateman takes the survival of the fittest adage literally. But when Bateman discusses his murderous thoughts with his friends, colleagues, lovers and ordinary citizens they react with the same aloofness as their discussions of politics, restaurants or business cards. The competitiveness is so extreme murder has become a natural extension of socially acceptable life.
Christian Bale's performance as Bateman (go figure, it's a typo away from 'Batman') was a revelation at the time. His career rise afterwards is a result of this performance. The secondary characters, including his trio of callous banker friends, the snobby waiters, etc are all perfectly cast and give great performances. Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula lights the film complimentary to the steely cold personalities of the characters.
The film would not have been the same if the filmmakers were men. Turner and Harron must have had fun subversively mocking the male ego. The men in the film are emasculated by making them insecure selfish and appearance-obsessed automatons. The need for acceptance by their peers causes the men to lose their identities – in figurative and literal fashion. The running joke of the frequent misidentification of the characters is very clever. “Wall Street” is a good companion-piece to “American Psycho” as Harron lampoons the behaviors of essentially the same characters that Oliver Stone aggrandizes.
The best scene in the film is the discussion of the font, type and card stock choices of Bateman and his friends’ business cards. It’s a priceless scene that has been reused in various forms in other films ever since. Enjoy.
Buy it here: American Psycho (Uncut Killer Collector's Edition)