WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: Patrick Bateman is 27, handsome, engaged to a beautiful woman and enjoying all the trappings of Wall Street wealth. He’s also a sadistic abuser of women and a ruthless killer, who can be moved to strike by the slightest provocation. The disappearance of a fellow trader brings Bateman to the attention of a suspicious detective, while his apparent crimes escalate to bizarre levels.
On the outside, all’s well with Wall Street trader Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale). He’s a perfect physical specimen with a strict exercise regime and a beautiful designer apartment; and although his flat’s not as big as some of his rivals, his restaurant reservations are a little second-rate, and his business card – while beautifully embossed – isn’t as exquisitely ivory as it could be, he enjoys many perks of his position: a beautiful socialite girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) and an affair with Courtney (Samantha Mathis), the partner of effeminate fellow trader Luis Carruthers (Matt Ross). However, Patrick confesses to an inner emptiness which manifests itself in acts of murder and torture – first the killing of a tramp, then the use and abuse of prostitutes. When Bateman kills trader Paul Allen (Jared Leto), things become more complicated as detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe) starts to ask awkward questions; but although he struggles to give convincing answers, Patrick’s increasingly grisly spree continues unabated. And even when his mania reaches an absurdly destructive peak, he somehow still gets away with it. It’s as if he imagined the whole thing.
I’ve now come full circle with American Psycho, having watched the film, then read the book, and now watched the film again, each at generously spaced intervals. It’s amazing what a difference reading the book makes. On first watching the film, I was amazed by its audacious, satirical dissection of the vacuous consumerism of Wall Street types, its shocking unpleasantness, its strange, detached atmosphere from clinical beginning to frayed, sweaty end. Seeing the film some years after reading the book, it’s surprising how discreet it feels; not that it skimps on the gore or sex, by any means, but it shies away from a number of very nasty scenes and ignores some very, very nasty passages entirely. As a result, if you know the novel you may find this under-100-minute movie a somewhat incomplete adaptation, overly interested in forming a conventional plot out of Kimball’s investigations.
That said, even in a diluted form a number of things shine through. Chief among these is Bateman himself, the man who has everything yet feels nothing, a true psychopath hiding behind masks and false names (when others aren’t misrecognising him), murdering in cold blood to the strains of Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and the News – or losing himself in an increasingly ludicrous fantasy, depending on how you read him and the movie. Bale brings immense physical and psychological presence to the part, portraying the enigmatic Bateman as a mass of contradictions, a muscular, confident egotist asserting his own non-existence. In and around Bateman, much of Easton Ellis’ satire remains intact, such as the loathsome one-upmanship demonstrated by the traders, with their business cards, restaurant reservations and waspish dialogue (I particularly like Bateman’s panic on entering Paul Allen’s apartment, and Evelyn’s initial reaction to being dumped: ‘I really don’t think it’d work’). Harron recreates the book’s descriptions of the 80s perfectly, a sanitised, ultra-designed world in which only the appearance of wealth has any currency, so you can kill as many people as you like/go off your rocker and still survive if you’re wearing a nice suit (though I’m afraid the Reagan reference was lost on me).
As I hinted at earlier, the film’s atmosphere teeters on a knife-edge between credible drama and dramatic hyperbole, which keeps the viewer constantly guessing. This is why I referred to American Psycho when reviewing Black Swan, and in truth Harron’s film has more in common with Aronofsky’s work than it does with that other cinematic dissection of capitalism, Fight Club (which definitively belongs to the 90s); but unlike Black Swan, this movie has the benefit of Easton Ellis’ jet-black humour. It also, of course, features his ‘trademark’ misogyny; and while this isn’t tempered or reduced much by the fact that the director is female (and why would it?), Harron is seemingly careful not to make any aspect of Bateman’s actions in the least bit titillating; in fact, Bale’s own buffness is (properly) fetishised to a far greater extent than the suffering of ‘Christie’, Elizabeth or his other female victims.
Although Bale dominates the movie, I should briefly mention that performances throughout are very good, Wall Street’s anonymous, interchangeable suits doing a good line in oily masculinity (except for Carruthers). Mathis is effective as Courtney, her meaningless existence turning her into a zombie; and even though they essentially have cameos, Witherspoon and Dafoe both put in thoroughly professional turns. Chloe Sevigny brings a lovely, sad sweetness to Bateman’s smitten secretary Jean; she’s the closest the film gets to a recognisable human being and deserves her lucky escape.
Ultimately, the movie version of American Psycho is a double-edged sword (or should that be axe*?). It distils the essence of the book and brilliantly brings the monster that is Patrick Bateman (and was 80s greed) to the screen, while drawing a veil over his most extreme actions and artfully teasing us about his mental state. On the other hand, admirers of the book may find the edge has been overly blunted by the film’s relative tastefulness. At least I can recommend the film to everyone old enough to see it; the excesses of the book make it much harder to endorse. Watch first, then read if you think you have the stomach for it.
NOTES: Or ax, if you’re that way inclined. I had assumed that the spelling of ‘aquisitions’ on the business cards was an Americanism, but it actually seems to be a horrible mistake.