American Psycho
Reviewed in June 2000 / Update from July 2009 here / Click Here to Comment
Director: Mary Harron. Cast: Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, ChloŽ Sevigny, Cara Seymour, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, Jared Leto, Justin Theroux, Bill Sage, Josh Lucas, Matt Ross, Guinevere Turner, Stephen Bogaert. Screenplay: Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner (based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis).

Photo © 2000 Lions Gate Films
There is little doubt in my mind that director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol), co-writer Guinevere Turner (Go Fish), and star Christian Bale (Shaft, Velvet Goldmine) have made the best possible version of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho, a novel which a quick perusal suggested was almost as psychotic as its lead character. And yet, for all their accomplishments, the filmmakers are limited by the material they attempt to adapt. Watching American Psycho is like witnessing a contortionist wrap her legs behind her neck: you are impressed, in a way, that she can manage it, but you're still unsure why anyone would want to.

Bale, carrying a movie on his newly-muscled shoulders for the first time since 1987's Empire of the Sun, plays Patrick Bateman, who is either a thirtyish corporate up-and-comer in the mid-1980s or the ghostly impersonator of one. "I'm not really here," Bateman tells us in voice over, as he patiently plies a transparent facial mask off his skin before his bathroom mirror. Both the image and the concept are smarter than they initially appear. Bateman, at least as Bale, Harron, and Co. have imagined him, is more than just a relentlessly self-conscious character: he is a character fully aware that he long ago ceased being a person. Patrick has worked hard through furious exercise, professional posturing, and a religious cosmetic regime to eviscerate his body of interior content, turning himself into the image of a person. I suppose you could say that Julianne Moore's problem in Safe is that she doesn't realize she's Patrick Bateman. However, while the Moore character's radical unawareness that her own personality has evaporated makes her vaguely, inarticulably sick, Patrick's total, purposeful fixation on flattening his soul makes him psychotic. He gets so good at flattening, and develops such an appetite for it, that he applies the technique to the bodies of people around him—which doesn't work out so well for them.

I cringe in fear at what Oliver Stone would have done with this material if, as once was planned, he had directed it. Beyond the fact that he wanted to cast Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems as intent as Patrick on turning himself into a two-dimensional image, Stone would have insisted on selling Patrick's meltdown as the exemplary predicament of everyone, everywhere. American Psycho would have become a screed about how the whole world has lost the ability to distinguish fact from fiction, instinct from behavior. Harron smartly focuses her attention as closely as possible on Patrick and his immediate milieu. She delivers a brilliant scene in which Patrick and his boardroom rivals engage in the ultimate white-collar pissing match of exchanging and comparing their business cards; intensely focused close-ups of each card (one described as "bone," another as "eggshell") prove riotous but also disconcerting—exactly the combination American Psycho needs in order to work.

Bale's hammy-canny performance treads the same line, with similar exactitude, though the movie isn't above ditching its themes to linger occasionally on the more viscerally stimulating images of his incredibly sculpted physique. The movie also features two striking, very different supporting turns from Chloë Sevigny (Boys Don't Cry), as Patrick's wallflower secretary, and Cara Seymour (Dancer in the Dark) as a prostitute on whom Bateman makes repeated, increasingly unwelcome calls. Neatest of all the tricks up Psycho's well-tailored sleeve are the endless games the art directors and photographer keep playing with dimension. It's hard to tell in Patrick's all-white apartment how large or deep the rooms are, and several shots of crowded interiors (barrooms, office spaces) are rendered in a depth of focus and with such a variety of lenses that it becomes impossible to gauge the distance between foreground from background—a nifty visual riff on the idea of a fashion-plate era that turns everyone and everything into a GQ spread.

You'll notice, though, that however craftily executed, none of these ideas are anything new: that late-80s Manhattan was a demimonde society of extreme superficiality, that moral behavior is incommensurable with any culture that views bodies as objects. Even the film's dexterous comic-horrific tone is more intriguing than genuinely affecting, the balance of which is irretrievably lost once Bale begins a fifth-act killing spree. There wasn't really any other direction for the story to take, which is a good reason to ask whether the story needed to be told at all. Technique can be exciting, and I am certainly alert to whatever project Harron and Bale take on next, but American Psycho itself is a marvel of misbegottenness: a fairly good film that no one would have missed if it hadn't been made. Grade: B–

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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