American Psycho (2000)

17May10

“I have to return some videotapes” – Patrick Bateman

After many failed attempts by directors and writers to adapt Bret Easton Ellis’s novel about a Wall Street serial killer, Mary Harron was able to the hit the mark.

Set during the mid 80’s, Harron captures the mood perfectly. Wall Street is riding on a wave of returns stuffing everyone’s pockets: art is collected like baseball cards, $100 dinners are half eaten and appearances rule the day.  Those with money have time to kill. A terrific soundtrack supports the glitz, highlighted by “Pump Up the Volume”, “Paid in Full”, and “Hip to Be Square.”

Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) impresses us quickly with his manic obsessive  lifestyle with his physical appearance. Externally, everything is perfect, meticulous, from his perfect suits, haircut and six pack abs. But beneath lurks a seething beast, unraveling, chipping away at his mask of “normal.” Early in the film, a running inner monologue explains “there is no ‘real me’….I am simply not there.”

During the day, he spends his time pretending to work at his father’s trading firm on Wall Street. He entertains himself listening to his walkman, watching TV and giving his secretary Jean (Chloe Sevigny) tasks to book restaurant reservations.

We meet his wife Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) who he blatantly ignores as she drones on about their upcoming wedding as they arrive to a chic restaurant. A few of his colleagues are there along with an artistic couple. The next day, Bateman is having a memorable argument with an Asian dry cleaning lady, raging on why she couldn’t remove the cranberry (actually blood stains) from his bedsheets. Scenes such as this keep the film balanced, its black humor at the backbone for most of the film.

Bateman’s routine is established with exercise, work, a lavish dinner, nightclubs, drugs and hookers: a gradual descent from a model yuppie in the morning to deranged serial killer by night. At first, he lightly indulges in criminal, physical behavior. Soon it escalates, however, assaulting hookers to killing them along with his co workers, using anything from axes to chainsaws to bullets.

Eventually, Detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe) pays Bateman a visit, inquiring about his missing colleague Paul Allen (Jared Leto), whom Bateman murdered earlier. By now, Bateman is having a hard time keeping his psychotic private life from blending with his  “normal” life. None of his friends pick up on this, though, the detective seems to be honing in, adding to his growing paranoia. Eventually, Bateman’s mind unravels at a frightening pace, the violence also escalating, sanity unhinged.

What’s fascinating is Bateman’s background. Beyond wealthy, educated and gifted physically, he should have it all. But he’s completely detached emotionally and tries to feel something in extreme emotional measures.  In some sense, he’s like the greedy Wall Street baron, but instead of sucking your pockets dry, he instead chooses your insides. What’s now become his trademark role, Bale’s fireball intensity is unnerving, a virtual unknown truly making the role his own. Mary Harron, who co-wrote the screenplay, deserves credit for tackling the book. Much of it is a continuous inner monologue, but she’s able to visually express the 80’s memorably, with the settings, music and attitude. Capturing the essence of that period will make this film timeless, along with its uniquely detached morals that will always have a place in the darkest recesses of the human condition.

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