A close personal friend of mine (No, it’s not Tom Skerritt) recently tweeted out that “We will never beat the 80s as a decade. I am convinced of it”. If anything portrayed in “American Psycho” is close to accurate, then I would say that tweet was a gross understatement. I am not a go-go commie-punching 80s Reaganaut myself so I have been forced to rely on others to describe this glorious era of Safety Dances and big hair to me, and “American Psycho” has certainly helped add to that vivid image in my head.
The film is a satirical hyper-violent slasher flick following the escapades of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a Wall Street executive in the 1980s. Through the lens of this character, we witness the hedonistic lifestyle of the cocaine-fueled big financial players of the decade, specifically how Patrick’s obsessions with fitting in and simultaneously besting those around him eventually drive him to develop a blood lust that never gets satisfied.
From the moment we first are introduced to this character, you can hear something in his voice that shows he is talking down to everyone, and that is because Patrick is very self-aware of how vain he and everyone he associates with is. He is out to dinner with his ‘friends’, each one sporting one of those cliché blue button downs with white colors and cuffs, along with more hair gel than the last, and they are just ordering ridiculous expensive orders as if it is nothing. Via a voiceover montage, we are given an in-depth look at Patrick’s morning routine, which consists of numerous skin care products and exercises along with a message that there is no real person underneath the entity that is Patrick Bateman. Patrick reveals that his fiancé (Reese Witherspoon) is having an affair with his friend (Justin Theroux) but he does not care because he is having an affair with the fiancé (Samantha Mathis) of a different friend (Matt Ross), in essence proving that not a single person he interacts with genuinely cares about any relationship they form. In fact, most of them have a lot of trouble discerning Patrick from any of his counterparts. Everyone dresses the same, gets their hair cut the same, and are obsessed with dinner reservations.
But what first sets Patrick over the edge and on his homicidal rampage is when one of his coworkers, Paul Allen (Jared Leto), one-ups him by having a better business card. This scene is important because while all of the coworkers are comparing cards as if they are their members, we as the audience can see that there is virtually zero difference between the designs on any of their cards. But it is the subtle difference that lights Bateman’s fuse. From there, the story is about Patrick’s addiction to murder and the different ways he goes about getting his fix, all the while Detective Kimball (Willem Dafoe) tries to piece together what happened to Paul Allen.
At its crux, this film is a piece of satire, commenting on the apathetic extravagance of 80s Wall Street as well as a man acting on all of his baser instincts all the time. Patrick does virtually whatever he wants, whenever he wants. He acts on every animalistic impulse he has and rarely if ever cares about the consequences. In fact, we never actually see him or anyone he works with doing any real work at any point in the movie. He is fueled by rage, greed and other selfish tendencies, yet hides it all behind a well-groomed façade. Patrick essentially lives a life that is out of the reach of any realistic dream for most people (hopefully). The most humorous aspects of the film come from the fact that there is virtually no difference between Patrick and any other male character in the film, except the fact that he seems aware of his place; the breakdown of his mental stability is the result of said awareness. It is unclear if his actions come from a desire to escape or a desire simply to feel because at no point does he ever tell us if he wishes things were different. Hell, by the end of the film, he cannot even confirm he really did what we all saw him do. The only thing we are truly sure of is that nothing will change as a result of what he went through.
Unfortunately, while this is the strongest aspect of the film, it also could be considered the biggest failure as well. Similar to the film “The Wolf of Wall Street” that came out in 2013, the movie depicts the lifestyle of the main character in a “cool” way. Obviously, Patrick’s mental breakdown is not the aspect I am referring to, rather the elitist, hedonistic behavior. Perhaps it is because society has become jaded, but we look at a character flexing his muscles and staring at himself in the mirror during a three-way and don’t see a psychotic self-obsessed murderer. Instead, we see a character that is cool, and like Jordan Belfort from “The Wolf of Wall Street”, people fetishize the cool factor, thus negating the satirical commentary about the lifestyle you set out to produce in the first place. Patrick Bateman, like Jordan Belfort, is a character that generations of rich frat boys can yearn to be because of how much he revels in the materialistic world they too seek to join. If viewers leave the movie being more turned on to the aspects of society you were trying to criticize, did your film succeed? Fortunately, that last aspect is subjective to the eye of the beholder. Some of us may look at Patrick’s behavior in disgust and hope to never become what he is.
For those viewers who chose to watch this film for the gore, you shan’t be disappointed. There is plenty of blood and severed heads to go around. Most of the violence is also accompanied by charismatic, sarcastic rants about mainstream 80s music, which is always fun to see from real-life crazy person, Christian Bale. (You also get to see the man who plays the best incarnation of Batman kill the man who plays the worst incarnation of the Joker, which was unintended but still cool.)
Bale is tremendous in the film. The events that transpire are solely about him and he dominates every scene that he is. You can see how unhinged and obsessed he is in every frame, which all culminates to a truly noteworthy monologue where he confesses to his abominable acts to his lawyer’s answering machine. One of the more subtle touches of his performance is how often he openly confesses his crimes to indifferent listeners and the growing frustration that is burgeoning out of him. Patrick almost craves consequences more than anything, yet that seems to be the one thing that eludes him.
The message of the film is clear and, unsurprisingly, still has merit today. I can recall a prominent figure of our time, who was mentioned on multiple occasions in the film by name, claim they could “shoot someone on 5th Avenue” and still be beloved. It is actually incredible that a story that was supposed to express a gross exaggeration might represent a literal truth as well. The idea behind satire is to use fallacies to create an extreme example in order to make audiences ponder the implications, and while it is unreasonable to assume one piece of fiction can change society’s way of thinking, perhaps it is time that we revisit this film again.
I give “American Psycho” a respectable 8.0 out of 10
Directed by: Mary Harron
Starring: Christian Bale, Reese Witherspoon, Willem Dafoe, Cara Seymour, Jared Leto, Justin Theroux, Matt Ross, Chloë Sevigny, Josh Lucas, Bill Sage
Runtime: 1 Hour and 41 Minutes