Christian Bale in American Psycho (2000)


(director/writer: Mary Harron; screenwriters: based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis/Guinevere Turner; cinematographer: Andrzej Sekula; editor: Andrew Marcus; cast: Christian Bale (Patrick Bateman), Willem Dafoe (Donald Kimball), Jared Leto (Paul Allen), Josh Lucas (Craig McDermott), Samantha Mathis (Courtney Rawlinson), Matt Ross (Luis Carruthers), Bill Sage (David Van Patten), Chloe Sevigny (Jean), Sara Seymour (Christie), Justin Theroux (Timothy Bryce), Guinevere Turner (Elizabeth), Reese Witherspoon (Evelyn Williams); Runtime: 101; Lions Gate Films; 2000)


“The film left me with an empty feeling…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Mary Harron (“I Shot Andy Warhol”) plays with Bret Easton Ellis’s gory novel and reduces it from a movie mainly about an out-of-control serial killer to one having more of a surreal black comedy flavor. I had an empty feeling from its dripping blood onset, which was really the drippings from a raspberry sauce being poured over a fancy poultry dish, to its ambiguous ending (where it is suggested that all the killings are in the psycho’s head). By the time the trick finale comes about my empty feeling is just as prevalent as when I was bombarded by all the lists of toiletries the psycho prefers, his fancy squid ravioli dishes with lemongrass sauce and arugula Caesar salads in those upscale restaurants he inhabits, and all the butchery that took place during the course of telling this President Reagan era fable about yuppie greed, a slight variation on Wall Street’s “greed is good message.” It ends up being a tasteless and pointless film.

This is, to say the very least, a disturbing film, even if the grisly killings take place mostly offscreen. It is a film about someone who is only human through his vices. While the film tries desperately to catch something about the psycho that an audience could latch onto about him that is positive besides admiring his good looks, it nevertheless can’t put the psycho together to look like a real person we could care about. He has become a composite sketch of what a serial killer is like, touching bases with some of the famous ones like Ted Bundy. He, in essence, remains an illusionary being, someone who doesn’t exist as himself. And that is what becomes the main problem for the film that is both creepy and sickly funny, but offers no insights into a serial killer’s mind-set that hasn’t been said before. Despite the film’s glitzy photography, all the beautiful men in it, its various techniques used to make this a thought-provoking film, it still fails to convince me that when all is said and done this is not a sensationalized film; one that is reveling in the subject’s sickness and need for pornography and violence and consumerism. It also unsuccessfully makes a blatant attempt in comparing the white men of corporate America to serial killers. This is a superficial psychological comparison and though it might sound good saying the two are alike, if you take the time to think about what is being said it becomes easy to see that there are just as many similarities as differences between the two groups.

What gives this film an elegance, if that’s the right noun to describe the film’s sleekness, is in the mesmerizing performance gleaned from the energetic Welshman, Christian Bale, as the psycho, Patrick Bateman. He’s a 27-year-old New York mergers and acquisitions vice-president who lives for his self-gratifications: reservations at the trendiest restaurants, living at the right address, keeping obsessively in shape, favoring the pop music of Huey Lewis and Phil Collins, and wearing clothing only by the name designers. His main problem is that he’s an arrogant corporate-type, a crybaby wimp, someone people can’t seem to remember, someone who is a control and cleanliness freak, and has an uncontrollable rage to kill. The psycho appears normal on the outside but inside he is a misfit, with a modern Jekyll and Hyde personality. His killing spree, he tells us by the end of the film, is in the range of 40, but the audience only witnesses the following: the stabbing of a homeless black man; the beheading of a model he dates; a prostitute and a pleasure seeking lady acquaintance of his, whom he chain saws after a menage a trois– one to death and the other by tossing the chainsaw atop of her when she ran screaming down the stairs; a male look alike co-worker whom he pole axes into pieces; an old lady who stops him from killing a cat, and several policemen who chase him.

When Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe) comes calling on Patrick at his sterile workplace which is similar to his immaculate all-white-and-steel-colored gadget-filled apartment, the psycho becomes visibly shaken by the private detective’s innocuous questions. Patrick freaks out when anyone touches him or tries to get too close to him. Kimball has been hired by the family of Paul Allen (Leto) to look into the disappearance of Paul. The only other thing that I remember from the detective’s miniscule role, is that Dafoe has a deep, rich voice.

Reese Witherspoon is the shallow socialite Patrick’s engaged to; Chloe Sevigny is his loyal but insecure secretary, who is attracted to him and almost gets killed by him; and, Samantha Mathis is the attractive girlfriend of one of his colleagues, who has a drug problem and is someone he uses coldly as a sex object. These women lend adequate support in their minor roles as the only people he knows who have any resemblance to being human beings.

The men in Patrick’s life are all similar looking colleagues, who seem to be dressed-up as gentlemen but underneath that veneer they are Neanderthals. In one successful scene, that is an amusing satire on status among the corporate-types, his colleagues compare their business cards as to the texture of the paper and the quality of the printing. These fellow workers are Jared Leto, Justin Theroux, Matt Ross and Bill Sage, and they represent the male as the cold-hearted hunter of his prey.

American Psycho, on the surface, captures the emptiness of corporate America and the white men who find material success in it; while, it also depicts a psychopath who is miffed into a frenzy when not noticed or who is prepared to kill at random when his appetite is whetted.

Despite Bale’s tour-de-force performance and the aims of the director to get more out of the film than the book got, it still has an unpleasant serial killer subject matter to deal with and is only successful in making passing comments about a way of life that is easy to ridicule- the “Me” generation, but one that is more difficult to understand.

I might have liked the film better if it had the balls to stick with its serial killer story as difficult a task as that may have been but which is the heart of the story anyway, instead of yielding to so-called good taste and accepting a lame Hollywood cop-out ending (which probably was a business decision more than an artistic one, since the film will now at least bring in some profit). The film left me with an empty feeling, implying that the psycho is still a psycho even if the killings are not real. While that might be true to a certain extent the author still believed, according to the way he told the story in his book, that a psycho is really a psycho only when he does kill.

I certainly don’t think music or books about serial killers necessarily influences them to be serial killers, or do their repressed thoughts mean that they will act on them. I believe they are that way because they are driven by what’s inside them that is uncontrollable and all that could be done in a film that is not made just for entertainment or exploitation, is to try and see if we can understand them a little better. I’m not sure if I can say that this film accomplished that and I’m not sure if I felt wholly entertained, though the film was to its credit not exploitative. Yet an empty feeling is what lingers when I try dennisschwartzreviews.comto think about the plot points. Other than the film looking good on a surface level and being titillating in spots, I don’t think there is much else to say about it that means much.