American Psycho (dir. Mary Harron): compelling satire on Wall Street society

Mary Harron, “American Psycho” (2000)

Based on the Brett Easton Ellis novel of the same name, “American Psycho” is a satirical survey of the people working at the top end of the financial industry in New York and their life-styles on the eve of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in September, 2001. The title of the book and movie and their protagonist’s name Patrick Bateman refer deliberately to the famous Hitchcock movie “Psycho”: this in itself suggests that the society they depict is hollow and unoriginal and depends on plundering other cultures and its own social and cultural networks through media, fads and social competition to sustain itself. Death is an ever-present motif in “American Psycho” in many different forms and in Bateman himself: lacking a moral and spiritual base, he fills the vacuum he feels inside his head and heart with thoughts, images and fantasies  of violent death and killing, all acquired second-hand through and from the products of his society.

The movie presents a series of sketches, some linked to one another, others not, and many of them very comic and sharp in their social and political comment. All are joined by a narrative in which Bateman (Christian Bale) has literally axed his friend and fellow merchant banker shark Paul Allen (Jared Leto) and is being pursued for murder by a police detective (Willem Dafoe) who seems less interested in investigating Allen’s disappearance than in sampling some of what Bateman and his social set take for granted. This includes lunch and dinner dates at swanky restaurants to see and be seen by others of their kind; showing off their “knowledge” about food, wine, music, books, theatre, designer labels, whatever passes for fashionable in their insular world; and having sex with one another’s gal-pals. The narrative is embellished by Bateman’s sexual dalliances with various prostitutes, most of which result in Bateman mutilating and killing the women with surgical instruments, nail-guns and chainsaws. Bateman’s violent tendencies, having built up from his frustrations with his empty life and the empty people he hangs out with, extend through the movie to bashing a homeless man, tormenting a cat, shooting at police and blowing up their cars. In nearly all these violent acts, there is something unreal yet a little plausible, that may have viewers scratching their heads as to whether these acts are real or not: is it really possible to blow up cars just by shooting at them with a hand-gun? can women be killed loudly and violently with chainsaws and their bodies hidden in an apartment for weeks, months even, without the neighbours noticing anything? can you drag a heavy body-bag through a foyer leaving a trail of blood for the concierge and others to see and nobody raising the alarm? Funny how Bateman manages to leave so much evidence behind, not bothering to cover his tracks, and no-one notices anything. The narrative pans out in a way that leaves viewers wondering how much Bateman lives in reality and in fantasy, how much of his fantasy relies on heavy consumption of media and products (much of it second-hand and deformed by popular belief into something entirely different) to relieve what is a lonely, loveless, mundane real life in an unproductive job in an industry that consumes people and produces nothing of real worth. Viewers learn that Bateman feels disgust and loathing for himself and everyone around him but lacks the imagination he needs to escape the death world he inhabits, so he remains trapped in existential Hell.

As Bateman, Bale gives a remarkable performance that shoots from barely repressed fury and deadpan expressions to neurotic over-the-top histrionics and back again and again with smooth ease and precise timing. He’s at his funniest when most po-faced while intoning solemnly about the minutiae of Bateman’s morning beauty regime or the merits of the latest vacuous stadium rock and pop albums. When he panics, he does so big-time, breaking out into a cold and glassy-faced sweat when he sees that his pals’ business cards are glossier and more embossed than his own, or gabbling and giggling his misdeeds on the phone to his lawyer or secretary when overcome with guilt. The support cast which includes some fine actors like Dafoe and Reese Witherspoon, who plays Bateman’s fiancee Evelyn, doesn’t have much to do but then the characters played are shallow airheads after all. Viewers may feel most sympathy for Bateman’s secretary, the sweet-natured and shy Jean (Chloe Sevigny) and possibly also for Kristy the streetwalking prostitute (Cara Seymour): these women are not quite so shallow as the other people Bateman associates with and significantly they hover on the edges of Bateman’s world, wanting to enter it, so they are not so warped mentally and spirtually as its more permanent inhabitants. Still, for such women from a lower social and economic class, there’s a price to be paid to enter that world: Kristy ends up “dying” and Jean, secretly in love with Bateman, learns about his secret inner life and his opinion of women when she riffles through his work diary.

In a movie about people who worship conspicuous consumption and reconstruct class barriers between themselves and others through their materialism, the details of the background settings become important indicators of personality: Bateman’s all-white minimalist apartment with the stainless steel kitchen (never used for cooking, of course) and the TV set playing porno flicks and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” says more about the hollow life and mind of its lone inhabitant than Bateman’s voice-overs at the beginning and the end of movie do. Paul Allen’s apartment, overlooking a spectacular view, is plush and luxurious with deep colours, suggesting a personality at least different if not more mature than Bateman’s. The music soundtrack, made up songs by rock and pop acts popular in the 1980’s, is intentionally generic, shiny and vapid for the most part.

With unlikeable and unsympathetic characters, and a plot that goes into an ambiguous ending, “American Psycho” doesn’t have much popular appeal for a movie that, among other things, is about Western popular culture and the deadening effects it can have on people who selectively choose its most vacuous products and aspects to live by. The lesson the movie delivers comes with as much subtlety as the chop Bateman delivers to Allen: people consumed by consumption end up consuming one another and themselves. “American Psycho” turns out to be a bleak film filled with hopelessness about the human condition in a soulless society. It can be hard to watch at times but as a study of a character trapped in a downward spiral it’s weirdly compelling.

Funnily, in the entire movie, Bateman and his associates aren’t seen to be doing any actual work which is where the real “killing” (as in deliberately marketing and selling mortgages and other loans at high interest rates to businesses and individuals desperate for money, flipping real estate or stocks, or buying businesses to strip them of their assets, among other things) occurs. It would have given viewers some insight into the kind of industry Bateman works in and why he comes to feel the way he does about himself.

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