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American Psycho

Violent Murders and Sharp Satire

By Michael Frakes

Staff Writer

Directed by Mary Harron

Written by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner

Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis

Cast: Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, Chloe Sevigny

How can any movie that depicts the bloody slayings and sexual adventures of a serial killer be of any entertainment value? I’m sure that is part of the controversy surrounding the film American Psycho and the book it’s based on, written by Bret Easton Ellis. However, this movie is not about blood lust, sexual exploitation, or even murder itself. Directed by Mary Harron, American Psycho is a dark comedy about the greedy, narcissistic impulses that drive men. It is an engaging, intelligent period piece that epitomizes a generation that often traded morals and values for designer labels and social status. The killings, while horrible and gory, bring the film’s satire into sharper focus.

Beginning with the opening scene in a chic Manhattan restaurant, American Psycho takes us into the yuppie age of the 1980s. The characters are empty, doped up on cocaine, and completely detestable. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), our narrator and anti-hero, is one of them. Bateman is a misogynistic, egotistical Wall Street executive, driven by greed, image, and the desire to fit in. In order to create the perfect body, he does over a thousand crunches a day, rests in a tanning bed, and applies facial gel masks to cleanse his pores. Oh yeah, and he kills people too. He has killed so many people that he has lost count.

He tells us, “There is no real me. I simply am not there.” He has all of the characteristics of a human, but no discernable emotions besides greed and disgust. As many serial killers do, Bateman lures his victims, usually women, back to his apartment, where he finds creative ways to kill and dismember them. The film has all the elements of the typical slasher movie: knives, axes, and even chainsaws. However, this is a comedy. Its a satire about the vanity, greed, and insecurity of the twenty-something male lifestyle of the 1980s. The film constantly mocks its misguided characters: the young Wall Street tycoons who get scornfully jealous over the fancy suits, expensive apartments, and prestigious clients of their rivals. They are always trying to outmatch each other with a sharper-looking business card or the ability to make reservations at Manhattan’s finest restaurants.

American Psycho’s obvious humor keeps our attention in the right direction. This film is very violent, yet we still find ourselves laughing when Bateman chases someone with a chainsaw. Bateman’s unleashed anger serves to enhance the film’s satirical focus, as he lets his male insecurities and frustrations turn into violent impulses. The intent of American Psycho isn’t to exploit sex and violence. It even uses a lewd three-way sex scene to hilariously emphasize Bateman’s absurd vanity. Furthermore, the film suggests that Bateman’s violent actions are only one step beyond the emptiness of the characters that surround him. Ironically, even when he comes closest to recognizing his conscience and revealing himself to others, he finds that no one around him cares anyway. They are either too self-involved, or they simply confuse him with someone else.

American Psycho is one of the few period films about the 1980s, and it certainly approaches that task with the right medium: comedy. In a satirical fashion, the film covers many of the bases of the ’80s: yuppies, cocaine, greed, and of course, the music. Bateman’s deep interest in pop music makes for an amusing contrast with the list-making characters of High Fidelity. In some of the film’s funnier scenes, Bateman entertains his soon-to-be-dead houseguests by discussing and listening to the art of such ’80s musicians as Huey Lewis and Phil Collins.

On all levels, American Psycho is a well-crafted piece of filmmaking. The film manages to include many subtle, effective details, from the endless number of ’80s cracks (Bateman tells his secretary to Just Say No when people want to meet with him) to the name of Bateman’s company, Pierce & Pierce (also the name of Sherman McCoy’s Wall Street firm in Tom Wolfe’s brilliant, satirical look at the ’80s, The Bonfire of the Vanities). Christian Bale does a remarkable job of inciting our disgust with Bateman, not so much in his violence, but more so in his narcissism and insecurities. Combine that craftsmanship and humor with an intriguing surprise ending, and American Psycho definitely deserves your attention.