Film Club / But Something Changing Inside Your Own Head

American PsychoAmerican Psycho
Directed by Mary Harron


Patrick Bateman: “Well, we have to end apartheid for one. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger. We have to provide food and shelter for the homeless, and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights, while also promoting equal rights for women. We have to encourage a return to traditional moral values. Most importantly, we have to promote general social concern and less materialism in young people.”

LOL of course Patrick Bateman is woke. 

I remember being disappointed by American Psycho the first time I saw it. I don’t know if I had read the book back then – but I knew the reputation of the book. The premise. I mean – clue’s in the name right? 80s yuppie goes around killing people. The dark side of the American Dream. Capitalism exposed for what it really is etc etc etc.

But yeah I couldn’t get my head around how shitty it looked. I mean the whole thing is that it’s about surfaces right? (“I always use an after shave lotion with little or no alcohol, because alcohol dries your face out and makes you look older. Then moisturizer, then an anti-aging eye balm followed by a final moisturizing protective lotion.”) So why not an elegant sleek shine? A film that looked like a freshly cleaned limousine. The T-1000 checking out his naked butt in a hall of mirrors. Instead – the whole thing looks like it cost about $100 to make. There’s no elegance. Everything just looks nasty

And yeah ok maybe that’s the point. The film shows us Bateman as he can’t see himself. All of his beauty routines and workouts can’t disguise the fact that he’s living in a cheap decaying world that’s already past it’s sell-by-date. 

(But actually I think maybe they just didn’t have enough money. Oh well).

But then as a movie it’s a bit of an odd duck all around. Mostly I think this stems from the fact that Patrick Bateman is an evil monster who’s coming from the same kind of lineage as Freddy and Jason and Pinhead and Leatherface etc – and all your other movie bad guys (only obviously Patrick has a much better suit and sense of decorum) only in American Psycho he’s also the main character. Which means that the centre of gravity is just a little bit… off. Like part of me thinks that the whole thing would have been improved maybe if Chloë Sevigny was the lead and so the whole thing was her learning about Bateman’s world and Bateman himself although of course the problem with that approach is that it probably would mean that you’d get less Christian Bale which would be a travesty. 

And yeah obviously obviously Christian Bale is amazing in this. His Bateman is a smirky, snide, shitty arsehole and yet (uh oh) there’s a part of you that can’t help but root for him. It’s the same sort of dark energy that Heath Ledger brought to the Joker. It’s like oh my god I wouldn’t want to take him out for drinks or anything – but if HBO decided to make American Psycho: The TV Series that was a camera crew following around Bateman living his normal everyday life then I would be tuning in every week (“Curb Your American Psycho”?). Or hell – maybe just have him reviewing his favourite music (“Listen to the brilliant ensemble playing of Banks, Collins and Rutherford. You can practically hear every nuance of every instrument. Sabrina, remove your dress.”)

Also – that Business Card scene might just be one of the best things of all time. (“Look at that subtle off-white coloring. The tasteful thickness of it. Oh, my God. It even has a watermark.” “Is something wrong, Patrick? You’re sweating.”) 

I wish the whole movie had the same balls-out approach and accuracy. There’s a few too many scenes where it’s hard to tell what the point is. And all in all it should be admitted that the movie never really manages to get past it’s premise. I mean like I already said in terms of what the movie is about – the clue’s in the name. And there’s nothing really that happens that expands or deepens that initial idea. Patrick Bateman is the American Dream made flesh and he has a head full of demons. And yeah like wow – maybe the people who work in Wall Street are kinda messed up? Who would have thunk it? etc

What do you think?

The real power of cinema is its ability to make you like objectively awful people. Whether it’s cowboys doing their part in the native-American Holocaust, or former members of US special forces killing middle-Eastern people indiscriminately, or a selfish billionaire arms manufacturer murdering a visionary scientist who was just trying to address competition for resources and help the environment, it is alarmingly easy to find yourself hoping that not only are that they are successful but that their victory over their enemies is brutal and comprehensive.  

It is interesting that Joel mentions the Joker because there is an interesting quirk of Christian Bale playing Patrick Bateman and Bruce Wayne, since not only are they very similar but Batman of course also represents a different type of masculine fantasy. To paraphrase the novel Snowcrash: 

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being Batman. 

Except that while Nolan and many other directors struggle to make Batman a convincing hero, so American Psycho explores the abyss in place of Bateman’s soul. But the magic is that even though he is a sort of vampire, as Joel says, you kind of root for him. It is not clear to me whether this is just the power of the protagonist, or that Bale is super-hench, or the understandable sympathy for his glorious failure as a human being. 

At around the same time as American Psycho made investment bankers seem like real people came out I recall American History X also humanising nazi skin heads. While portraying the Nazi’s as generally idiotic thugs, Edward Norton himself is demonstrably smart and buff and even briefly finds redemption. The most interesting scene in the movie is a basketball game between the Nazis and some black youths, which is shot like a Nike advert and where the audience is encouraged by the movie to root for the Nazis. As Norton himself reverse dunks the winning point in the movie the music swells, the in-film audience punch the air and the film cuts to the dejection of the vanquished black antagonists to allow the audience to also enjoy the victory of our heroes. 

It’s not quite the same but Bateman’s rampage at the end of the movie has a sort of subversive anarchic glory to it as we see this stand in for the corporate sharks everywhere finally snap and turn on society, the merciless ego-mania that got him where finally unleashed. As he starts throwing a chainsaw around like Ash from Evil Dead there is a sort of comedic glee to the fairly horrific violence. 

But even this one “achievement” in the movie, as Bateman’s violent desires meet violent ends, is taken away from him as their reality is called into question and instead of the wild consequences free excess of Wolf of Wall Street, the end of American Psycho is more reminiscent of the scene at the end of Brazil where the pathetic main character loses his mind  to totalitarian torture. Bateman’s dark obsessions are just seen as a weird joke by both the other characters, and indeed the audience who feel in some ways as cheated as him that his narration is unreliable and the entire movie is called into question. 

I struggle a lot with the idea that to understand someone is to forgive them. That is – if you could live someone’s entire life (or see it from the inside) then every single choice they made would make sense to you. I mean it’s an epiphany that’s only come to me as I’ve grown up – but everyone has reasons for doing and thinking the things that they do. And yeah you can think those reasons are dumb and misguided and ill-informed and all the rest of it. But from the point of view of someone else – those reasons are the ones that are most important / make the most sense. 

I kinda thought that books were the best way to illustrate this idea. After all – books put you inside someone else’s skull. You see all of their thoughts from the inside and understand how they see the world. It’s basically like a form of magic. But one where the effect isn’t a rabbit jumping out of a hat but something changing inside your own head. Which is actually more impressive maybe? I’m not sure… 

But yeah Jonathan makes an interesting point – that this kind of thing works with movies as well. You only need to spend an hour or two with a character and you can get completely sucked into their worldview. I mean – that’s actually kind of scary right? Like Parick Bateman is obviously a complete and total monster with a soul as black as outer space and yet yeah – you do find yourself kinda rooting for the guy? You feel bad for him when he gets upstaged by Paul Allen’s business card (“Look at that subtle off-white coloring”). You want him to escape the evil smiling clutches of Willem Dafoe. You want him to win.

Maybe this speaks to my brain damage tho? Like it reminds me of the Breaking Bad Discourse when people were asking “when did you first start to turn against Walter White?” because it’s a question that never really made much sense to me. If the character is the protagonist then that means I’m on their side no matter what. They’re the point of view shot and I want them to be successful in achieving their goals. Because that’s how fiction works right? I don’t even need them to be sympathetic or likable or anything like that. I just need the story to be good. 

Although the interesting thing about American Psycho is that story-wise – it’s pretty lacking. Another common refrain that I’ve heard a lot is that people don’t really care about plot – they just care about character and American Psycho kinda feels like the logical end point of that type of thinking. It’s basically just Christian Bale doing a lot of unconnected kinda stuff. Going to dinner parties. Hitting on women. Running around with a chain. etc. It never really builds up to anything or really takes you anywhere. There’s the interesting bit of trivia that says that for Willem Dafoe’s scenes, Mary Harron instructed him to play each one in three different styles – one as if he is suspicious of Patrick Bateman, two as if he has no clue as to Bateman’s guilt and three as if he is undecided. And then they mixed and matched them altogether to create the finished version you see in the film where it’s just… kinda vague and defusive? Which is what the rest of the movie is kinda like too. Almost as if it’s saying – “here’s some stuff. You work it out.” 

I can’t help but feel that maybe it would have been a better film if it had more of a point of view and wasn’t just content to observe. I feel like it’s a film that lets the audience off way too lightly because it never really commits to anything. It’s similar in a way to Patrick Bateman’s record reviews. A whole lot of words desperately disguising the yawning emptiness underneath. 

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