- Cole Brunner
American Psycho follows a well-groomed, nihilistic Wall Street executive and the unraveling of his mental state. The film is a character study that explores Patrick Bateman and his delusional sense of self. Mary Harron uses American Psycho to investigate the superficial, vain, and materialistic tendencies of the 1980’s American man, but her critique is still relevant today as our society is becoming increasingly self-obsessed and vanity driven. Harron ironically, and critically, romanticizes the notion of the young urban professional with subtle feminist undertones that help in exposing the darkest side of men’s socially constructed identity. Through the film’s psychopathic, and narcissistic male lead American Psycho personifies the flaws of America’s capitalist consumer driven culture. Mary Harron brings Brett Easton Ellis’s highly acclaimed novel to life on the big screen with Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman.
There are many different perspectives on this film, especially because of the ambiguity of its ending. (Kooijman & Laine, 2003) suggest that Patrick Bateman is a double portrait, using Sigmund Freud’s theory of double relation to understand this character as a sort of imagined Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. I ascertain the notion that Patrick Bateman’s serial murders and executions are illusions within the characters twisted psyche. They are developed as a coping mechanism intended to deal with real emotions that have been suppressed in order to maintain his outward appearance to the world around him. Patrick Bateman is a creation, an idea, a thin shell covering a deeply disturbed man who is starting to crack. His infatuation with himself is only superseded by his insatiable desire to fit in. Unlike (Kooijman & Laine, 2003) I differ in my take on understanding this complex character. I understand him to be the Yuppie that he is initially presented as who has simply developed a series of mental unbalances due to his constructed, practiced, calculated, and perfected outward presentation to the world around him. “American Psycho is well written and undeniably entertaining, yet Patrick Bateman’s behaviour, his submission to bestial urges, is viewed as abhorrent, the exact model of what is to be avoided. However, the very acknowledgement that he has apparently succumbed to these urges, not invented them, makes the unpleasant suggestion that they are lying dormant in all of us, and the only difference between us and Patrick is that he has indulged them.” (Helyer, 2000). This quote helps summate my understanding of Patrick Bateman’s purpose, he is a representation of our worst selves, a tangible entity that represents our darkest thoughts of what we might be capable of doing when we are pushed far enough.
Having a female director was essential in pulling out the deeper meanings, truths, and intents behind the murderous front put forth in the novel. American Psycho is Mary Harron’s third film but not her first book adaptation. Harron’s background in documentary and biographical films was a huge asset to this adaptation. “Harron is less impressed by the vile Patrick Bateman than a man might have been, perhaps because as a woman who directs movies, she deals every day with guys who resemble Bateman in all but his body count.” (Ebert, 2000). Ebert makes a valid point regarding the importance of Mary Harron and the female gaze. Had this film been created with the artistic vision of a male director I suspect that we would have found ourselves immersed in a dark and sadistic James Bond film, by in which the emphasis would have been placed on appropriated notions of womanizing, and materialism, as well as fetishized justifications of murder to obtain dominance, control, or as an outlet for rage and frustrations. Mary Harron brings with her point of view the effective and smart critique of the 1980’s Wall Street egomaniac. Her female gaze exposes the insecurities, irrationality, and vanity of the superficial typified American business executive using murder as a metaphor for repressed male instincts and insecurities.
Christian Bale does a fantastic job delivering his lines as though the character has rehearsed speeches in the mirror in preparation for social interaction. The superficial charm and complete lack of emotion is not only delivered superbly through dialogue, but through Christian Bale’s eyes. They seem to be a dark abyss of nothingness that provides the audience with a chilling sense of true insanity, and an utter disconnect from reality. The cinematography, set design, and costume design all perfectly aligned to capture the importance of visual and surface aesthetic that Patrick Bateman himself embodies. “Its cinematography and production design mirrors Bateman’s narcissism and love of designer goods, and how this is juxtaposed to the killings Bateman commits.” (Kooijman & Laine, 2003). Appearance is everything to this character and as long as everything is perfect on the surface nothing else matters. The purposeful use of music was a very important factor in developing Patrick Bateman’s character. Music was not only used to further represent Bateman’s mainstream interests, the well-chosen song lyrics help epitomize truths about Patrick himself. “I think their undisputed masterpiece is “Hip to be Square”, a song so catchy, most people probably don’t listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it’s also a personal statement about the band itself.” (Patrick Bateman). This statement exposes how Bateman uses music as a medium to try and understand and make sense of the world around him.
The opening credits contain what appear to be drops of blood, which are exposed to be raspberry puree on a very elegant looking dish. From the very first minute of this film Harron’s stylistic choices are defying our expectations and using the executive upper-class lifestyle as a metaphor. The film’s tone boarders that of a soap opera at times, which is an intentional way to convey the ridiculousness and phoniness of the lifestyle Harron is critiquing. It combines elements of horror to its soap opera core as it purposefully identifies and uses cliché chase scenes when Patrick Bateman is about to commit a murder. It does so by executing shots in a dark or heavily shadowed setting to further emphasize and expose the darkness inside of Patrick Bateman. The scene when Bateman is chasing the escaped prostitute down the hallway of the apartment building alludes to the movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that Bateman was watching earlier in the film as he worked on perfecting his abdominal muscles. This scene further exposes Bateman’s murders as fantasies as they get more and more absurd with each execution. It is also intentionally critical of popular horror narratives of the time, particularly in the way that the victim should, by all natural laws, escape her perpetrator but never does. For example in Friday the 13th the victim is always running away while the masked killer is merely walking, yet he always catches up. Bateman drops a chainsaw from the top of a long bannister which some how finds its mark killing the escaped prostitute. This scene is overtly critical and uses this blatant mirage to effectively highlight Bateman’s obsessive mind in which he is clearly constructing his own phantasmal narrative. “Bateman entered a movie in which he stars, and where he is able to attach meaning to his life as a movie killer, yuppie, and porn star, but now he cannot find his way back anymore, because there really is nothing beyond the movie. Bateman’s acquired double appearances have irrevocably replaced the substance of his Self–if it ever was there in the first place.” (Kooijman & Laine, 2003).