Based on the controversial 1991 novel of the same name by Brett Easton Ellis, American Psycho was considered unfilmable because of the long, detailed passages devoted to Bateman’s ruminations on the music of Whitney Houston and Phil Collins, punctuated by extremely graphic descriptions of sadistic violence inflicted on women. Anybody taking on this project would have to find a way to translate it in an interesting way without completely turning off audiences while also appeasing the MPAA.
For almost ten years filmmakers like David Cronenberg and Oliver Stone took a crack at adapting the book into a film while actors like Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio expressed interest in playing Bateman. In the end, Mary Harron, director of the critical darling, I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), and Bale got the film made. The end result predictably divided critics and underperformed at the box office, but considering the subject matter this is hardly surprising. American Psycho went on to enjoy a second life on home video where it developed a cult following. It’s been ten years since the film’s initial release and so a retrospective look is in order.
We meet Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) having dinner with three of his friends and a few things come immediately to mind – they all dress and look alike with expensive suits and slicked-back hair (a la Gordon Gekko or Pat Riley – take your pick), and none of them are paying much attention to what the others are saying because of most of it is white noise anyway. For example, one of them (Bill Sage) returns to the table and informs no one in particular that the restaurant doesn’t have a good bathroom to do cocaine in while another (Josh Lucas) makes an anti-Semitic remark about one of their contemporaries. It’s an amusing exchange that sets the film’s satiric tone right from the get-go. Their meaningless conversation and habit of misidentifying their co-workers in the restaurant gives us an indication of how ridiculous they are.
The first indication we get of Bateman’s pathological state of mind is in the next scene where his drink tickets at a nightclub are rejected, forcing him to pay cash. When the bartender turns her back, he calls her a bitch and says he’s liked to stab her to death but when she turns around he’s all smiles. I would argue that American Psycho is a brilliant, pitch black satire on par with Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange (1971), another book which, incidentally, was considered unfilmable back in the day. Mary Harron adopts the same clinical detachment, which makes sense considering the subject matter.
Consider the way in which she takes us through Bateman’s apartment, the camera gliding elegantly through his tasteful, if not slightly Spartan living space. As his voiceover takes us through his daily routine down to the most exact detail, we see Christian Bale’s incredibly fit body doing all kinds of stretches, in the shower and getting ready for work. While Bateman peels a facial mask off his expressionless face, his voiceover tells us, “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman. Some kind of an abstraction but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory. And then I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and may be you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable. I simply am not there.” This passage is the key, I think, to unlocking the enigma that is Bateman. He spends most of his day putting on an act, a performance for others and behaving the way he thinks they want him to because his real self is almost non-existent. Or, worse, he is a sick serial killer that enjoys torturing and killing women. The key to understanding Bateman is that he’s performing all the time because he’s afraid of being caught in the act and possible revealing his true self.
Chloe Sevigny) to wear a different outfit and when she asks him why, responds with a condescending smirk, “C’mon, you’re prettier than that.” Bateman often comes across as a vain idiot and a lot of the film’s humor comes from the contrast between how he views himself and how we view him. After all, his image of himself is taken from fashion magazines like GQ. He’s an empty shell with no soul. As he tells us at one point, “I have all the characteristics of a human being: flesh, blood, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion except for greed and disgust.” These confessional voiceovers give us insight into the kind of person Bateman is.
I love the jarring musical edit from refined classical music that plays over footage of Bateman getting ready for work to the bouncy strains of “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves blasting over the soundtrack as it takes us to the next scene – Bateman’s office. In a nice touch that tells us a bit more about him, we never actually see Bateman do any work at his office. He’s either watching television or doodling. In addition, he and his cronies don’t listen to each other. For example, Bateman informs via voiceover that he’s annoyed that his fiancée Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) is rattling on about getting married while he’s trying to listen to the new Robert Palmer album. He is also indifferent to the fact that she is having an affair with Timothy Bryce (Justin Theroux), the only interesting person he knows, because he’s having an affair with her closest friend, Courtney (Samantha Mathis).
All Bateman wants to do is fit in and this means eating at all the trendy restaurants and having the perfectly designed business card. To this end, he tells his dinner companions that the world has to solve problems like Apartheid, stop terrorism and end world hunger while promoting civil rights, not because he believes in these things but because it’s what he assumes people expect him to say. He rattles off these causes like he’s reciting a prepared speech and Bale delivers it with just the right amount of faux-sincerity. He also employs this tone when Bateman orders dinner for Courtney later on, making sure to add comments from reviews he’s read (pointing out that the peanut butter soup was described as, “a playful, but mysterious little dish.”) in that same fake-sincere tone.
Courtney is so zonked out of her head on prescription drugs that she thinks they are eating at Dorsia, the most prestigious restaurant in New York City that everyone in the film aspires to get reservations for. Bateman and his buddies are so self-absorbed that they misidentify each other much as Paul Allen (Jared Leto) does with Bateman. And why not? They all dress, act and look the same. They live to compete against each other, like who can get a reservation at the trendiest restaurant or who has the best-looking business card. In a hilarious scene, Bateman and several of his co-workers compare their cards, each one topping the last much to his dismay as Allen’s ends up being superior to everyone else’s (and he got a reservation at Dorsia!).
The first murder we see is quick and brutal as Bateman kills a homeless man and his dog in a fairly matter-of-fact fashion. The sudden brutality is shocking as is the tonal shift from satire in the previous scene to the out-and-out cruelty of this one. On the other hand, Paul Allen’s murder is played for laughs because he is just as empty and superficial as Bateman and so he dies while Bateman critiques the Huey Lewis and the News album, Fore (“Their undisputed masterpiece,” he enthuses.) while playing “Hip to Be Square.” Bale is amazing in this scene as he goes from gleefully pontificating about music to brutally murdering Allen with an axe.
Willem Dafoe), a dogged private investigator who is unfailingly polite if not persistent as he attempts to piece together the timeline of Allen’s disappearance. His exchanges with Bateman are funny as the young executive offers all kinds of useless information and we wonder if Kimball knows that Bateman killed him. Is he just messing with Bateman? The only indication we get that this is all part of his imagination is his confessional voiceovers but let’s not forget he’s hardly the most reliable narrator.
Bateman’s critiques of popular music are definitely some of the funniest parts of the film. For example, he says of Genesis, “their lyrics are as positive, affirmative as anything I’ve heard in rock,” and later of Phil Collins’ solo career: “seems to be more commercial and therefore more satisfying in a narrower way.” It doesn’t hurt that he’s saying all this while directing two prostitutes in a sex video. While having sex with both of them, Bateman looks at himself in a mirror, occasionally flexing. He’s more interested in himself than them and this showy narcissism is hilarious. It’s interesting to note that in the one scene where his heterosexuality is called into question – a co-worker mistakes his trying to strangle him as a sexual advance – he panics and is repulsed, making a hasty exit with a lame excuse (“I have to return some video tapes.”). It’s a scene that speaks volumes about his character.
I also find it interesting that the one woman Bateman spares is his secretary Jean. He invites her over to his place with the intention of killing her. He even goes so far as to aim a nail gun at the back of her head but a phone call from Evelyn interrupts him, ruining the mood and even embarrassing him. Bateman tells Jean to go, warning her that he can’t control himself. She interprets it as getting hurt in a relationship but he’s referring to his bloodlust. I think that Bateman actually cares about her enough to let her go, resisting the urge to kill her. However, as the film progresses, his homicidal impulses worsen as he loses his grip on reality. Harron depicts this visually with increasingly outlandish scenes, like a bloodied, deranged, naked Bateman chasing a prostitute down a hallway with a chainsaw. It defies logic and common sense, which, I think, is the point because this is all taking place in Bateman’s fevered imagination – a place where he can murder all kinds of women and get away with it or get into a major shoot-out with the police and kill any witnesses in what amounts to a paranoid nightmare.
When Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho came out in 1991, its mix of detailed grotesque violence and razor-sharp satire of 1980s materialism scandalized the literary world. Feminists and critics were outraged. The National Organization of Women organized a public protest over the novel. Original publishers Simon & Schuster dropped the book three months before its scheduled publication when the company’s employees objected vehemently to it. Random House eventually picked it up and the controversy that surrounded the book helped propel it to best-seller status. In 1992, filmmaker Stuart Gordon gave producer Edward R. Pressman a copy of the book and he was so impressed by it that he acquired the rights to the film version. Pressman said that Gordon wanted to make “a real X-rated version, black and white, very hard-core and very true to the novel,” and Johnny Depp expressed an interest in playing Bateman. However, the producer wanted to make his film more commercially viable and Ellis also did not think that Gordon was right the person for the job.
Pressman saw I Shot Andy Warhol and met with Mary Harron in 1996. He liked her take on the material which see saw as a social satire. She first read the book in 1991 after being intrigued by all the controversy surrounding it. She felt that Ellis’ book was “seriously misunderstood,” that it was intended to be a “critique of male misogyny,” and those that attacked it didn’t seem to understand that it was a “satire on Wall Street, and on these young Turks.” Once she got the directing job, she sought out a co-screenwriter that would share her view of American Psycho as a feminist film and a satire. Christine Vachon, who had produced I Shot Andy Warhol, recommended Guinevere Turner, who had co-written and starred in the independent lesbian romance Go Fish (1994). Turner had even attended the same Vermont university as Ellis had and admired his success as a writer. Harron and Turner were drawn to the book because of its “skewed and critical look at male behavior, macho behavior, that we’d never seen before.” She sent Christian Bale the script and he read it without having checked out the source novel. He was surprised to find it quite funny to read and was drawn to the role because it was the opposite of anything he’d done before. When he agreed to do the film, friends and family close to him said he was committing career suicide but this only made him want to do the film even more if only to prove them wrong.
Bale met Ellis at a restaurant to get his approval for the role. He showed up in character which the writer found “seriously unnerving” because he was in a place with “someone pretending to be this monster that I created.” To prepare for the role, he read Ellis’ book, which he found informative. He also worked out extensively for the film, doing weight training and boxing, and became “fascinated with talking about the body, and diet, and the gym. It made me very judgmental of other people’s bodies as well.” In the last six weeks leading up to filming, his trainer increased the actor’s training to “three hours a day of absolute exhaustion and really boring food.” Early on, he and Harron talked a lot over the phone about Bateman and, according to the director, “how he was looking at the world like somebody from another planet, watching what people did and trying to work out the right way to behave.” Then, one day, Bale called her and said that he had been watching Tom Cruise on David Letterman’s late night talk show and was taken with the actor’s “very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes.” He decided to incorporate that into his portrayal of Bateman.
Harron cast Bale but Lions Gate wanted Leonardo DiCaprio, hot from the massive success of Titanic (1997). A studio executive sent him a copy of the script and a $20 million offer. He expressed an interest and suggested directors like Danny Boyle and Martin Scorsese, both of whom he wanted to work with (and eventually did) – all unbeknownst to Harron at the time. Lions Gate wanted a bigger movie star, one that would appeal to the international market. Harron fought with the studio and remembered, “they would’ve taken almost anybody over Christian.” Lions Gate announced DiCaprio’s involvement at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. Harron and Bale were stunned and understandably upset. Pressman urged her to meet with DiCaprio but she remained loyal to Bale and refused. She didn’t approve of his casting and was fired along with Bale only to be replaced by Oliver Stone. When he came on board, the filmmaker began preparations to rewrite Harron’s script. According to Pressman, Stone went for a more psychological approach.
Principal photography began in March 1999 in Toronto. The production was met with protest from an activist group called Concerned Canadians Against Violence in Entertainment. They were upset that a film was being made of Ellis’s book, reportedly a copy had been found in the home notorious serial killer Paul Bernardo who, only five years prior, had committed several gruesome murders. Anti-violence groups were upset that the film was allowed to use federal and provincial tax credits because it was shot mostly in Toronto and attempted to keep the city from issuing a permit that would allow the production to make a film there. Local newspaper the Toronto Sun ran an article linking Bernardo with Ellis’ novel the day that Harron and her team were going to do a technical survey of their main filming location – an office building that would stand in for the place where Bateman worked. The bank that owned the building refused permission for them to shoot there after street protests against the film were threatened and they were faced with potential bad publicity. The rest of the city’s financial institutions followed suit and the production had to shoot the Bateman office scenes on a soundstage. Over the next two weeks, the filmmakers scrambled to preserve the rest of their locations because some of the owners began having second thoughts. The production even hired extra security in anticipation of trouble on the first day of filming but no protestors should up – for that day or for the entire seven-week shoot.
The buzz surrounding American Psycho reached a fever pitch at the Sundance Film Festival where tickets for its screening were being scalped for as much as $200. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and praised Christian Bale's performance as being "heroic in the way he allows the character to leap joyfully into despicability; there is no instinct for self-preservation here, and that is one mark of a good actor.” The New York Times called it a "mean and lean horror comedy classic.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers wrote, “whenever Harron digs beneath the glitzy surface in search of feelings that haven't been desensitized, the horrific and hilarious American Psycho can still strike a raw nerve.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “"Yet Harron, if anything, is an even more devious provocateur than Ellis was. By treating the book as raw material for an exuberantly perverse exercise in '80s nostalgia, she recasts the go-go years as a template for the casually brainwashing-consumer/fashion/image culture that emerged from them. She has made a movie that is really a parable of today.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Harron and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner do understand the book, and they want their film to be understood as a period comedy of manners.”
However, the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, The difficult truth is that the more viewers can model themselves after protagonist Bateman, the more they can distance themselves from the human reality of the slick violence that fills the screen and take it all as some kind of a cool joke, the more they are likely to enjoy this stillborn, pointless piece of work.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “"But after an hour of dissecting the '80s culture of materialism, narcissism and greed, the movie begins to repeat itself. It becomes more grisly and surreal, but not more interesting.” In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman said of Christian Bale’s performance: "If anything, Bale is too knowing. He eagerly works within the constraints of the quotation marks Harron puts around his performance.” The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, "The best scenes in the film involve the kind of status-seeking jokes that would make a very funny short subject. But over a feature-length film, there is only so much hollowness this viewer can endure before starting to yawn and look at his watch. Curiously, the material has even lost its power to shock and outrage.”
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