American Psycho (2000)
Written by Guinevere Turner & Mary Harron
Directed by Mary Harron
1987 in New York City was a time of gross consumption and wealth. Patrick Bateman is an investment banker who spends his life dining at exclusive restaurants amongst people whom he seems to regard with vile disdain. When Bateman becomes enraged by a social slight or what he perceives as personal digs at himself, he unleashes his anger in a private and extremely violent manner. Bateman stabs a homeless man to death and stomps his dog into oblivion. Later, he gets a colleague extraordinarily intoxicated and brings him home, only to hack the man apart with a chrome plated ax after opining on the virtues of Huey Lewis’ “Hip to Be A Square.” How long can Bateman sustain such an existence, especially as he feels his sense of individual self-being drowned out by the culture around him.
American Psycho is a pointed, hilarious satire that could not be more relevant for our time. Twice during the film, the name “Trump” is dropped; once someone thinks they see Donald in a limo driving past and another time someone spies Ivana in a chic bistro. This is the time period in which Donald Trump rose to prominence and gave birth to a particular variation on toxic masculinity in our culture. Many people point to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street as a definitive work on the wealth consumption of the 1980s, mainly to Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is Good” speech. I would argue that American Psycho is the more exceptional work on the matter mainly because it eschews any sort of redeemable characters.
I first watched American Psycho in college where I think my and my friends reading of the film was more in line with the outraged public reaction. We were not outraged, but we saw it as a funny movie without really reading deeper into what the picture was saying about Bateman and men like him. Watching the film with a good decade of film viewing and reading of criticism behind me, I saw it in an entirely new light. Initially, I wasn’t too in love with American Psycho. I saw it as a decently funny movie, but nothing I sought out to rewatch. My wife made a passing comment after it came up on a list of some sort that she had never seen it. I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to revisit.
Most male filmmakers would attempt to find some sort of likeability or redeemable quality in a figure like Patrick Bateman. You’re taught as a screenwriter that your protagonist must have some kind of charisma that causes your audience to identify with and like this character. Harron and Turner had no interest in seeking out the positive qualities of Bateman. Instead, he is framed as ultimately pathetic and powerless. In social interactions, Bateman exemplifies everything the audience would find cringe-inducing and so do the male figures around him. When they attempt to exposit on contemporary issues they muddle around so many disparate ideas they come across as buffoons. Bateman ends up a sweating mess when confronted with a slightly better business card than his. His explosions of violence are less exhibitions of masculine power than they are over exaggerated childish tantrums.
I was amazed at how little violence is actually in the film. I haven’t read Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, maybe one day, but I have heard how his style of writing can be a bit trying. But the movie only has about three or four moments of violence (the homeless murder, the Paul Allen killing, the abuse of the sex workers, and the murder in Allen’s apartment). Most of the movie is a comedy of manners and interactions. When Bateman makes a move to kill Luis Carruthers for making a social slight towards him, Luis mistakes this for an embrace and confesses his attraction to Bateman. Bateman, a typical homophobe, as expected from this character, is repulsed and runs from the bathroom an even sweatier, more pathetic mess than initially seen. The homophobia of this character in contrast to his laughable displays of masculinity in bed with sex workers is ultimately hilarious. Bateman wants to be seen a cool, suave man yet cannot handle another man telling him he is attractive.
American Psycho is a condemnation of the now fifty-somethings and sixty-somethings that are holding office in the United States government currently. The characters on display in this film are the contemporaries of Mike Pence, John Kelly, Jeff Session, and more. Patrick Bateman is what people like Donald Trump are at their core. They want the world to see them as dangerous and virile when they couldn’t be more impotent and pathetic. Bateman is so concerned with how he is perceived externally that he is ultimately hollow within. His many monologues allude to this fact. “There is the idea of a Patrick Bateman.” For as obsessed as Bateman is with social status, he would be much happier in solitude where he could become nothing.