Sunday, April 16, 2000

American Psycho / **** (2000)

At surface level, Patrick Bateman seems like the kind of guy that every young man would love to be modeled after: he has a successful job, lives in an upstate apartment, is showered in riches and has friends in high places. This is what one could call a “role model,” an ideal archetype for youngsters who seek to achieve success on various avenues. But anyone who has even heard of “American Psycho,” either as a film or as a controversial novel by Bret Easton Ellis, surely knows that this image of fortune and vitality is completely deceiving. Beneath this deluding appearance lies a madman beyond description: a sadistic and superficial being that feeds on sex, drugs and violence in order to fill a void in his soul.

There have been countless pictures depicting these kinds of stories: “In The Company Of Men,” “Fight Club,” and the recent “Boiling Room” are all prime examples, as they paint portraits of men who will push any boundaries in order to get what they want. “American Psycho,” directed by Mary Harron, penetrates the very heart of this theme; it is a scathing, bitter, savage and cold film without much uplifting energy or spirit (other than a few brief moments of witty satire). And yet the movie is one of the greatest of its kind, well-shot and tightly devised by a talented group of filmmakers. The script, written by Harron and Guinevere Turner, sees its character neither as villain nor hero, but as a prototype unnerved by a position of authority. I say “prototype” because the character himself is not really human; he’s a reflection of the searing shallowness of society’s bigwigs, who chew up and spit out anyone they can in exchange for wealth and power. But Bateman, unlike most, embraces the sadism of his disposition; at one point he announces, “There is no real me. I am simply not there.” He lacks a conscience, yes, but doesn’t fool himself into believing that he actually has one.

The material is adapted from what is considered one of the most daring books ever made. In the story, Bateman (Christian Bale) is a guy whom everyone at the office respects—funny, smart, sophisticated and dedicated to his work. At night, however, he leads a different life: one in which morals are nonexistent and brutal mayhem is conducted. In one of the earlier scenes, we see Patrick casually pass a woman on the street and greet her with kind regards; in the next scene, he is at the Laundromat with blood-soaked sheets in his hands.

What is most disturbing, but perhaps unsurprising, is that Patrick enjoys murdering these people; the look on his face as he slaughters a co-worker with an axe, for instance, is almost pure pleasure. But those that work in his office are unaware (and sometimes uncaring) of his nightly tendencies. When a woman at a local nightclub asks him what he is “in to,” he replies with subtle honesty, “murders and executions.” A colleague sitting right next to him at the time seems un-alarmed, however, assuming that Patrick said “mergers and acquisitions.”

As the director, Mary Harron does a remarkable job with the material, taking the Bateman character to unsettling heights without ever lauding the details of his mental rampage (as certain directors might have done). But best of all, she does not achieve all these shudders by using extensive blood and gore on screen; some of it is shown, yes, but most of it is simply suggested. Why did the film almost get an “NC-17” rating, then? Because the sexual content is rather extensive; in one scene, Bateman engages in a threesome with two women while admiring his muscles in the mirror (the scene, by the way, was actually edited down to initially achieve the R rating). Yes, the sex is graphic, but why does the MPAA insist on slapping pornographic material with its “Kiss of Death” instead of something more damaging to younger viewers, like gratuitous violence? Some things may never be explained.

Christian Bale acts out Bateman with the same prominence as the novel, using cynicism in comments towards coworkers and commoners, but maintaining a sense of enthusiasm for the violent acts he performs by night. As an actor, he also does a fine job in parading the egocentricity of his character, particularly when we see Bateman use over a dozen different cleansers in the shower and wear an ice pack over his eyes to reduce puffiness. Choosing someone to fill this role was undoubtedly difficult (at one point, even Leonardo DiCaprio was rumored to play Bateman), but Bale is the ideal choice because he understands the complexity of the personality and illustrates it effectively. The performance is worthy of an Oscar nod.

There are debates among many movie buffs, however, that question the authenticity of the murder scenes: are they really happening, or are they merely fantasies in Bateman’s mind? Many of the death scenes are realistic, but one particular scenario sticks in the mind as support of the latter conclusion, when Patrick chases a screaming prostitute down a hotel hallway with a chainsaw in his hands. There are no signs of concern from hotel residents, who can obviously hear the motor of the chainsaw—no open doors and no calls to the police. Could someone ever get away with this in real life? Hardly. And is it possible that Bateman could aim a chainsaw well enough so that it would slice his victim when he threw it downstairs towards her? Doubtful.

Whether or not the murders actually happen is beside the point: the film is an incisive commentary about the emptiness and rapacity of important people, and how their emotional detachment can drive them to do, or even think of doing, despicable deeds. Like a slew of recent pictures, the movie also features a surprise ending that, like some of the murder scenes, is almost hallucinatory; but unlike those films, the journey towards the climax is neither slow nor dreary; it is filled with great tension and intrigue. As a result of this quality, in addition to fine performances and clever writing, “American Psycho” is so far the best film of 2000.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Thriller/Comedy (US); 2000; Rated R; 97 Minutes

Cast
Christian Bale: Patrick Bateman
Reese Witherspoon: Evelyn
Chloe Sevigny: Jean
Jared Leto: Paul Allen
Willem Dafoe: Donald Kimball
Samantha Mathis: Courtney

Produced by Ernie Barbarash, Joseph Drake, Christian Halsey Solomon, Chris Hanley, Victoria Hirst, Michael Paseornek, Edward R. Pressman, Ron Rotholz, Jeff Sackman and Clifford Streit; Directed by Mary Harron; Screenwritten by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner; based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis

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