Perfect Movies: American Psycho

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“You like Huey Lewis & The News?”

I sure do, and Patrick Bateman makes a great argument for the strengths of their 1983 commercial breakthrough album, Sports. It would be a great moment in any retro film for the main character to espouse his love of mainstream contemporary music, but becoming a counterpoint to the action depicted on-screen–of Bateman preparing his killing floor to murder a colleague with an ax by laying down plastic tarp and newspaper everywhere in his apartment and donning a smock so that his fine suit isn’t spattered with blood–makes the assessment a dark and twisted comment on the shallow, sleek pop-rock that gained popularity in the 1980s, a decade defined by its excess and material wealth in America. Fortunately, Batemen enjoys their follow-up album, 1986’s Fore!, so that evens the score.

It’s a brilliant character choice that was first espoused by author Bret Easton Ellis in the film’s source material, his seminal work American Psycho, first published in 1991. Itself a masterpiece, Ellis’s novel depicts in the first-person an unhinged Master of the Universe investment broker living in go-go 1980’s big-money New York City. While radically more insane than its film adaptation, which was released in 2000, both share the same jangled narrative nerve that operates under a sophisticated veneer.

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It’s the madness bubbling underneath Bateman’s composed surface that similarly gives the film adaptation its power: that it conflicts with the popular imagination of the good old days of 1980s America where individuals amassed great wealth and power through sheer determination and hard work. Instead, American Psycho depicts the despicable offspring of the already wealthy and powerful as he skims the surface of America’s economy and culture, chewing up and barely regarding the luxury and comforts that were handed to him without an afterthought and often despising the automatic success he was given.

It’s a controlled film featuring an equally controlled performance by Christian Bale as the psychopath in a Valentino suit Patrick Bateman that replicates the high-end lifestyle and aesthetic of the 1980’s NYC elite: their restaurants, townhouses, luxury apartments, high-rise corner offices, expensive wardrobes, and disconnected lives that float a thousand feet above the hoi polloi are replicated to perfection. It’s no wonder these people are so sick inside: they barely had a chance to become humans before being taught that they aren’t. It’s for these reasons and many more that I submit American Psycho as a perfect movie.

American Psycho – A Perfect Movie

As he admits in the opening narrative, Patrick Bateman is not who he appears to be: he is only surface, and what lies beneath that well-heeled, manicured, and wealthy exterior is something completely different and ultimately disgusting: he is a murderous psychopath who has no regard for human life; he hates the people in his life considered friends friends; he despises his co-workers; and he feels no upset or compunction when he acts upon his murderous impulses. He is a shallow man whose only depth reaches into black pools of hatred and violence.

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Expertly depicted by director Mary Harron, we are introduced to the shallow world Bateman exists in: of high finance, where his family connections have landed him a prestigious (and do-nothing) job as an investment broker at a top firm in New York City. Having come from a world of money, social connections, and refinement, Bateman is a product of a rarefied world of access and comfort much of the audience of American Psycho will never experience first-hand. The film would almost be aspiration porn if it weren’t for the fact that its main character was such a disgusting monster.

And that’s the brilliant point being made: that wealth and class cannot buy morals, values, or a happy life. Just the opposite, as depicted in the film, nobody in Bateman’s world seems happy: they’re all wealthy brats who don’t seem to appreciate anything, whether it’s thousand-dollar lunches or well-appointed townhouses or a life of extreme luxury and access. The adage that money can’t buy happiness has never been more accurately depicted in a film–especially since this is the fringe narrative besides the main one.

About the main one: Patrick Bateman is a pathetic figure. Once you realize the twist of the entire narrative (spoiler: all of the murders are in Bateman’s head and he’s probably the biggest loser out of everyone that appears in the film), you wouldn’t want to trade places with him for all of the money in the world.

It’s not necessarily a self-reflexive rejection of success the film makes so much as it is a comment on how there are psychos ranging across the entire spectrum of economic, class, and geographic models of the United States–it just so happens that we focus in on this one in this particular place and time, with a well-heeled urban psychopath instead of a country bumpkin or middle-class suburban dweller. At their core, they are all interchangeable at the end of the day, but only one has a social standing worth examining further–for at least for stylistic sake. After all, would you want to follow Willie’s psychotic break in rural Illinois rather than smooth, sophisticated Bateman’s in Manhattan?

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Bale gives a career breakthrough performance in this film, vacillating between vulnerable and hate-filled. Maybe he’s never played a more dynamic character since: we’re treated to his character’s inner thoughts, motivations, fears, anger, and humiliations both big and small. And he plays it to perfection in every scene. Carrying the film on his shoulders, Bale transforms into an emotionally broken trust fund baby grown up, hating his lot in life, hating his friends, and ultimately hating himself. He seeks some sort of break from this routine and can only find release inside his own mind. Ultimately, Bateman is an impotent figure, one who retreats from the fantastic reality he lives in because he cannot figure himself out inside of the actual one.

I cannot stress enough what a visually immaculate film it is : sharp, crisp, and clean–a film of lines and planes–it would be a beautiful commercial film if not for the outbursts of grotesque violence smattered throughout. Instead, Harron uses contrast by incongruity to drive the point home of the main character’s own isolation among the splendid world he finds himself. Like a dream, Bateman falls into psychotic breaks from the already incredible reality he lives to find escape, making the refined landscape he lives in an ugly and brutal–a state which he prefers. He may be psychotic, but he’s not dangerous. Nobody that demands a reservation at Spago and La Dome and attended Exeter and Harvard is so vicious (so we tell ourselves) as to actually commit the crimes Bateman attests; these are the dreams of an over-educated, over-soft, bored human being who finds his effortless success contemptible, and thus his own self a nightmare.

Meanwhile, the film itself is pretty hilarious. I mean, if you can stand the violence and overall despicable main character, it’s actually a very funny movie. The humor may be pitch-black, but once you disconnect from the serious tone that the film imposes, much of the dialogue and characters are great satires. Even Bateman’s own shallow indifference and like of generic pop-rock of the 80s becomes funny. While he may be murdering people to the sounds of Huey Lewis & The News and Genesis, his unabashed love of this music is itself ironic and funny. What murderer likes such light and bouncy fare, anyway?

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And that’s ultimately the film’s greatest strength: irony. How ironic that a man who has all the financial and material success as Bateman does would get his rocks off at murdering the homeless instead of enjoying his success? Or hire prostitutes instead of sleeping with the many available, wealthy, and beautiful women he encounters? Or feed a cat to an ATM when it prompts him to instead of just withdrawing his money and leaving? Maybe the sickest kind: a person who has no idea who they are, what they want, or what to do with their unearned success.

Maybe you need to be an American to truly enjoy the mad irony that this film engenders: maybe you even need to have lived in, have been directly affected by, or else envy the status of the characters that are depicted in this film to enjoy American Psycho‘s insane, glossy satire of capitalism and those that benefit from it most at the top. Maybe the envy of these characters and their wealth is a large part of the enjoyment factor: that us regular schnooks will never attain such financial and material wealth, and it’s fun to watch one of these one-percenters lose his marbles under the stress of keeping up appearances and being unable to.

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Maybe it’s one great big thumb at the capitalist system in general: it’s a subversive, big-budget masterpiece that hates the very world it depicts. Just like the book, it comes from the belly of the beast–Ellis himself came from a wealthy background, and this film was a high-budget mainstream studio project that released wide and to financial success. Just at the beginning of the new century, before everything collapsed in America for a loong while, it was seen as a smart flick. 17 years later, it’s a subversive masterpiece that hates on the very system that screwed everybody over in the Naughties. Perhaps through this lens, we are justified in our hate since it’s easier to think that these Masters of the Universe that fucked everybody economically in 2008 truly are monsters.

How none of the wealthy characters in American Psycho seem not to enjoy any part of their material success is anger-inducing but also perfect for the film. Maybe these people are complete assholes on their own and were just in the right place in the right time to cull wealth and popular success. It’s like a real-world version of The Wolf Of Wall Street without romanticizing the subject at hand. We are simply stuck with watching an awful human being operating at the top of the world and how he has no idea what to do with the power he was handed but to be as vacuous and awful as possible.

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But nobody’s really a monster in this movie: even Bateman, though a psychopath, doesn’t actually do any of the awful things we see depicted on-screen outside of his mind. He is–just like his whole set are–just dopey human beings plopped into positions that supersede their ability to truly appreciate what us shuffle-bum jobbers would find just peachy.  And maybe that’s what makes the movie so good: that we see these people with the best breeding and wealth and connections in the world are as stupid–if not stupider–than any of us.

Whatever the reason, it’s a fantastic film with a lot of awesome fun to be found within its dynamic construction. Slick, sleek, smart, and sophisticated, American Psycho is the kind of movie you can watch and appreciate on many levels over and over, and it has something important–and humorous–to say about The American Dream. For theses reasons and more, I think it’s a perfect movie.

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Categories: culture, film

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