In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1990 and seven from 2000 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column). The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films that were among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
“You’re a fucking ugly bitch. I wanna stab you to death, then play around in your blood.”Patrick Bateman, “American Psycho” (2000)
Bellowed at a barmaid who’s too busy to hear them, the words in Patrick Bateman’s wire-in-the-blood wish from an early moment in American Psycho still evoke chills when you hear them. Part of it is in Christian Bale’s delivery — a dime-stop turn from vapid dude-bro into vile determination. A larger part of it, at least now, is the depressing recognition that you — or a woman you know, love or respect — has had similar language lobbed at her on social media.
These words seem more savage and tyrannical 20 years later … and sadly more commonplace, as the world’s Patrick Batemans stalk their prey on any manner of superhighway — fueled by a manic and malignant mindset, facing few (if any) repercussions, and folded into the loving arms of a culture in which they now feel completely vindicated.
Based on Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial 1991 book of the same name, director Mary Harron’s obsidian-dark adaptation (co-written with Guinevere Turner) ostensibly tells the tale of an investment banker indulging in his ghastly murder fantasies across New York City in the late 1980s. During the 1999 production, American Psycho became an easy target for protests in the wake of the Columbine shootings; one organization in Canada, where the film was shot, even persuaded certain restaurant owners to deny permission to film in Toronto’s restaurants.
Removed from those scalding-button issues of the day, it is at least easier to see Harron and Turner’s intent with their adaptation — shifting the point of view from Bateman to his victims during the story’s moments of menace to reclaim real-world relevancy and clarify the more insidious terrors in which Bateman traffics. It’s “smile more” as a slasher movie.
It’s also a film in which Bale, naked save for sneakers, chases a woman with a chainsaw that he then drops down a stairwell to skewer her. It’s also a parody of corporate capitalism with a masterful scene of coked-up yuppies presenting their increasingly costly, and tacky, business cards to one another as if they were pungent genitals. Yes, it has forever redefined ‘80s anthems like “Hip to Be Square” and “Sussudio” with an electrically sleazy subtext.
But the satire of American Psycho has stayed whetstone sharp and vital not through its garish depictions of murder, time-capsule titters or needle-drop jokes. It’s through Turner and Harron’s knowledge — one certainly stronger than any man of even modest privilege could conceive — of the ways in which malignant and malevolent male conversation can render moribund even the most connected societies. (True to form, even Ellis has complained about the movie with the same sort of enthusiastic bloviation into which Harron and Turner’s script blows a hole.)
Like most big-ticket 1990s productions, American Psycho had its own perilously close flirtation with ruination. Bale’s biggest role at the time was a toss-up between Newsies and Empire of the Sun (both from when he was a kid), and he had played Jesus of Nazareth just before this. Harron had directed episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz, along with the film I Shot Andy Warhol. The two were attached … until they weren’t, when Lions Gate Films decided Oliver Stone and Leonardo DiCaprio would be more bankable. True as that would’ve been, all accounts point to that version of the movie being just a new deade’s model of a sleek, casually violent thriller — robbed of the satire and, with that, any reason to exist beyond MPAA-goading shock.
There were also any number of popular ‘90s actors in contention to play Patrick Bateman before DiCaprio — Johnny Depp, Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves, Jared Leto (eventually cast here in a sort of Brooks Brothers inversion of his role in the previous year’s Fight Club) and Ewan McGregor (who turned it down after a request from Bale, with whom he had co-starred in Velvet Goldmine several years earlier). DiCaprio’s salary alone eclipsed, by more than 200%, the budget Bale and Harron eventually got — after Stone and DiCaprio clashed on vision for the film, DiCaprio departed for The Beach and Lions Gate brought back Harron and Bale.
The story goes that Bale sat tight with a sixth sense that the role would boomerang back to him, turning down other roles and auditions while maintaining peak condition to get started as soon as he got the call. A role Bale’s peers thought would kill his career turned out to define it — the way he regularly throws medical or dietary caution to the wind by physically transforming himself, his clenched and unpredictable menace, and also his verbal and physical timing thrown around around with as much olympian precision as his considerable physique. (Bale’s cadence on “Relief washes over me like an awesome wave” as a voiceover response to getting a “good” table at a restaurant is among his many memorable semantic slice-and-dices in American Psycho.)
So indelibly does Bale inhabit Bateman that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else even coming close. Inspired by an interview in which he noticed Tom Cruise’s “intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes,” Bale initially plays Bateman like a cross between that superstar in his worst superiority-complex mode and Hart Bochner’s smug would-be charm as Harry Ellis in Die Hard. (He’s the coke-sniffing sycophant whom Hans Gruber shoots after he tries to sell out John McClane.). But then Bale brings his own brew of sheer comic fortitude — the loose-legged shimmy he improvises before killing Leto’s character, the pauses he inserts into a retort of “Because I want to fit in” after he’s questioned by his fiancée (played by Reese Witherspoon), the way he seems to yank each strand of hair into a wild, desperate coif by film’s end.
Well before Bateman’s descent into most such men’s greatest fear — being found out as having the same anxieties as the rest of us — Bateman seems to be the universe’s ultimate master. He espouses an encyclopedic opinion on every world issue of note. He enjoys the nirvana of a cushy and nebulously defined job in mergers and acquisitions. He has acquired a daily skincare regimen of equal sophistication and specification. Bateman waltzes into his office — where we never see him do any actual work — so late in the day that he can just turn on Jeopardy! and mark time until a melange of Manhattan nights featuring swanky dinners and thumping clubs.
Bateman is a Perry Ellis ad made flesh, and his friends are either facsimiles of him or another model of the metrosexual mesomorph (one played by stealth utility player Justin Theroux in an early role). Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula shoots Bateman and his buddies to appear so waxy and retouched that they seem like apex Westworld hosts. A similar alternation between flatness and flair in the interiors and exteriors — which accumulate a sort of soundstage surreality as the film goes on — also illuminates one of the script’s, and novel’s, most famous quotes:
“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman. Some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me. Only an entity. Something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand, feel flesh gripping yours, and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable — I am simply … not there.”
Of course, this empty, existential edgelord angst is something with which we’re all now more familiar, too — the way bratty assfaces situate themselves as victims of a world that simply can’t comprehend them rather than own up to any lack of clarity, responsibility or humanity. Certainly, the braggart-dick way with which Bateman enters conversations belies any honest, human intent to engage. He’s constantly commandeering, reframing and evading in patterns that emulate the dodge-and-weave of destructive online rhetoric — logic treated like a mirage and civility like the turn of a magic-trick disappearance without the prestige to bring it back again. Bateman even mentions, with awe, a possibility that the car on the road next to his belongs to the most rotten ringleader we have in real life. (Back then, the film’s obvious digs at Reagan had to suffice; today, they feel like an eerie premonition out on the moors.) Such an existence utterly bereft of obligation or responsibility, bejeweled by constant compliments and the ardor of affection, where your vitriol is met only with veneration or envy … well, isn’t that the fantasy for so many who foolishly think a red hat has given them any sort of seat at the table?
“Since it’s impossible in this world we live in to empathize with others, we can always empathize with ourselves.” It’s the sort of nonsensical thing someone would say to get someone talking, silence them after a syllable and then insist they still provided a forum. You laugh at how ridiculous the sentiment sounds until you consider that someone has probably tweeted something similar, sans irony. Or, worse yet, embedded it in their bio.
Bateman utters that line to two women with whom he’s trying to perpetrate his second three-way of the film. One of them is Christie (Cara Seymour), a prostitute whom he has preyed upon before. Throughout Christie’s two appearances, Harron trains her camera fleetingly but forcefully on Seymour’s face — her glass-cutting glances of disgust and disdain, her fleeting moments of hope that Bateman is actually pampering her with the Pretty Woman fantasy, and the soul-crushing resignation that if that guy’s going to talk Pretty Woman at all, it will be a distinct lack of appreciation for the sinew and nuance that Go West brought to “King of Wishful Thinking” on the soundtrack. Christie humors Bateman, trying to match his emptiness in a manner he’ll appreciate. It’s akin to women who see through the bullshit of guys like him in the real world and could call them on it but choose, for their own sanity, to not run a gauntlet of offensive retorts at best, slippery-slope slides into the DMs at worst.
Harron and Turner, of course, crank all of this into circus mode during the closing reel, as Bateman just decides to kill anyone — male, female, human … cat — whom he can’t conquer … or does he? Even in a time of post-Columbine anxiety, that anyone would have read the film version of American Psycho as just another ticker-tape parade for toxic masculinity — or believe the bedlam that ensues within is reliably related — seems surprising. Well before an ATM implores Bateman to feed it a stray kitty or he’s blowing up cop cars with one bullet, we see how Harron and Turner’s script pivots toward the very real fear from Bateman — and those of his ilk — that their fraudulent facade will be found out somehow — outed, shamed, cucked. Bale becomes a bloated, sweaty, blubbering mess in this exaggerated depiction of the downfall … or what some such person would think passes for that. There’s even a moment during his climactic confession when Bale contorts his face into something that resembles the Trollface. And even that confession, with all its implied remorse, is as much a parlor trick as his provocations — a howl into the void disguised as a tweet he might delete later after feeling cute.
Clearly, American Psycho’s most boundary-pushing moments are the fetid fantasies and feverish figments of a deluded animation. Harron and Turner take it a step further to hypothesize that maybe not even the non-homicidal moments are real — that maybe Patrick Bateman, to go back to that existential quote, is just the masturbatory success fantasy of a basement-dwelling schlub. And in that way, the film asks, with enduring precision and poise, the unnerving question of what’s worse: exaggerated violence that some confine to their mind or the verbal sort they make real in a way that tears the world asunder? Even as Harron expertly uses horror and comedy hallmarks, American Psycho exceeds a mere screed about excess and greed. Fashion and music may change, but the debasing aspects of infectious, invasive image-forming stay the same.