Sunday, April 16, 2000

American Psycho / **** (2000)

At the surface level, Patrick Bateman is an archetype for every young boy’s professional aspirations: he has a successful job, lives in an upstate apartment, is showered in riches, has friends in high places and keeps the company of beautiful girls in short skirts. To see him engage with others is to sense what it must be like to endure life under the guise of a role model. But anyone who has even heard of “American Psycho,” either as a film or as a controversial novel, will soon realize that this image of fortune is deceiving. Beneath this appearance lies a madman beyond description: a sadistic and superficial being that feeds on sex, drugs and violence in order to fill a
void created by selfish indulgences.

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, and each paints a portrait of men who push boundaries in worlds that allow them moral gray areas. “American Psycho,” directed by Mary Harron, penetrates the very heart of this theme; it is a scathing, bitter, savage little film without much optimism going for it, other than a few brief moments of witty satire. And yet it is also a great film, well-shot and tightly devised by a talented group of filmmakers and writers who see the material as a conduit for great psychological energies. And the script sees the Bateman character as neither villain nor hero, but more a prototype unnerved by a position of authority. Movies thus far have usually only accepted them as a formality for other focuses, but now Harron has found the uncultivated center of the subject: a man who embraces the sadism of his disposition. At one point there is dialogue that emphasizes the irony of that identity: “There is no real me. I am simply not there.”

The material is adapted from the famous Easton Ellis novel that has perplexed, fascinated and even infuriates its readers for several years. 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 these acts like they are pasttimes; the look on his face as he slaughters a co-zworker 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 was actually edited down). Yes, the sex is graphic, but why does the MPAA insist on slapping pornographic material with its “kiss of death” label instead of something more damaging to younger viewers, like gratuitous violence? Therein lies one of the great ironies that “American Psycho” is cheerful to exploit.

Christian Bale acts out Bateman with the same prominence as the novel, using cynicism to describe 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 (the voice-over gives us, to boot, a full explanation as to why they help him achieve a “youthful” appearance). Choosing someone to fill this role was undoubtedly difficult (at one point, even Leonardo DiCaprio was tapped for the portrayal), but Bale is the ideal choice because he understands the complexity of the personality and illustrates it an eerie sardonic enthusiasm.

There are debates that question the authenticity of the murder scenes: are they really happening, or are they merely fantasies in Bateman’s mind? Many of the deaths are portrayed with a realistic pass of style, but one particular scenario sticks in the mind as support of mere fantasy, 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: 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? All of our observations play into a conclusion that doubts the context of Bateman’s own perspective, leaving many to wonder if they have seen an internal reality spurred by his own quiet madness.

Whether or not the murders happen is beside the point: the film is an incisive commentary about the emptiness of the high end of the social structure, and how an emotional detachment can drive its people to do, or even think of doing, despicable deeds. Like a slew of recent pictures, the movie also features a surprise ending that is almost hallucinatory; we are left with questions that lack clear answers. But they are not to the service of frustration, either. We thrive at the uncertainty of Bateman’s behavior, are marveled by his dedication to the horror, and continue to discuss the perspective of his bravado even after the theater lights have gone up.

Written by DAVID KEYES

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

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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