This anti-hero is Patrick Bateman (played with vapid perfection by Christian Bale), a wealthy, New York-based investment banker who also happens to be a serial killer. Like the deranged Richard Ramirez, he doesn’t much care whom he kills: what matters is the act of killing, and how alive it makes him feel. But unlike Richard Ramirez, Bateman is so well-groomed, careful, and outwardly put-together that no one would suspect instability when around him. They wouldn’t think to, and wouldn’t want to.
In American Psycho, set during the yuppie-populated golden years of the 1980s, we mostly watch Bateman live, witnessing the cutthroat goings-on of his work life and the debaucherous cum blood-soaked excursions of his personal one. Most one-on-one exchanges with professional rivals, as well as women (whether they’re love interests or prostitutes), end fatally.
Additional moments focus solely on Bateman’s obsession with his physical appearance — he exercises tirelessly, and takes an eternity to get ready in the morning. (We’re even lucky enough to hear him describe his skin routine in great detail through voiceover). From his determination to look physically stunning to his womanizing, not a thing he does isn’t solely driven by what makes him feel good. He’s a narcissist with homicidal inclinations.
Smartly, Harron and Bale allow us hate the man they so tirelessly lift from the pages of Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel of the same name. They don’t so much try to get inside his head as they do emphasize the dangers of vanity. And, most memorably, the perils of getting everything you want, of never being told no, and of literally being able to get away with murder.
The juxtaposition between murderous monstrosity and corporate mundanity, then, is compelling. How many men have felt trapped by their jobs and their lifestyles that they’ve longed for action to take them out of their predictable routines? The plight of Patrick Bateman is certainly sensationalized, but that’s part of why American Psycho works so well: half comedy, half bloodied horror slasher, it’s a quarter-life crisis movie where the rage the protagonist feels toward his life manifests itself not into the buying of a Porsche but rather the slaughtering of dozens of innocents.
We could see how someone could lose their mind in Bateman’s position. So many young 20-somethings have to work their way to the top, to struggle for what feels like an eon to see their dream life through. But we can sense that Bateman only periodically had to work hard, peaking at 25.
So he doesn’t have anything to look forward to — there are no more mountains to climb. His bloodlust has replaced the drive he might have felt years ago, when he was still a newbie trying to make an impression. He’s so confined by relative invincibility that murder is the only thing that makes him feel slightly vulnerable.
But our sympathies end there: quasi-compassion only seeps through when picking Bateman apart with the detail of a reanimation-obsessed scientist. As revealed by monotone voiceovers played at the beginning and end of American Psycho, Bateman has always been a demon masquerading as someone who looks like a Calvin Klein model, never one to feel remorse for his actions and never looking beyond anyone but himself. He’s acutely aware of this, and seems determined to appear normal in various social situations. But he never does: when Bateman’s trying to be relatable, he appears as nothing more than a robot reciting facts it learned about Huey Lewis and the News just a few days previously.
Given the kicker of an ending, all the slaughters may simply be fantasies. But what we have in American Psycho is a gruesome, but interesting, study of self-absorption. Propelled by Bale’s rubbery, meticulously raging performance, it is as much a deliciously black comedy as it is an effective deconstruction of the male ego. By tinting its more horrific moments in satire, it makes for an unusually intelligent psychological thriller. If it leaves us cold, such is only a sign that we’ve grown too immersed in Bateman’s worldview. B+
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
f you’re white, rich, straight, handsome, powerful, and male, you can get away with almost anything. And that’s exactly the problem that befalls the anti-hero of Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000); he’s so beautiful, and so privileged, that no one would dare question anything he does. Or believe him when he admits to doing something thoroughly despicable: several moments in the movie find the man literally confessing to a crime, and the person opposite him laughs in disbelief even after he makes it clear that he isn’t joking.