American Psycho is sixteen years old. That’s a very disturbing thought to me.
Not quite as disturbing as Mary Harron’s slick and controlled adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel still manages to be all these years later, mind you — and only marginally less disturbing than the fact that the incredibly accomplished Psycho was, at the time, only Harron’s second feature, and that she co-wrote the screenplay as well as directing — but disturbing nonetheless.
And you know what? Sixteen years later it’s also just as biting and relevant as ever. In fact, if you contrast the time that it first came out with the present day, you’ll find it’s all the more. Psycho appeared in the cinema at the turn of the millennium, a time when we were still all feeling the good vibes from the credit bubble of the 90’s. The villains of Wall Street depicted in the movie — like Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe — seemed more like cartoonish exaggerations of a semi-fabricated past, instead of only slightly hammed up versions of real life. Since then we have lived through a cataclysmic bank-instigated economic crash, and an attendant dredging up of characters who would make Gordon Gecko blush (fraudulently moving around six- or seven-figure sums in exchange for day-old sushi). We have seen mass movements like Occupy, the rise of Bernie Sanders and the attendant mainstreaming of his political message. Almost two decades later American Psycho seems even more resonant and important than when it first appeared.
At the centre of Harron’s American Psycho is Christian Bale’s absolutely phenomenal and detailed portrayal of Patrick Bateman, and Bateman — selfish, narcissistic, petulant, violent, venal, voracious — isn’t just a man. He is a walking avatar of the system that has grown up around us over the course of a few centuries, and which has had a hell of a growth spurt since the latter part of the 20th. There is a fantastic and pivotal bit of Ellis’ writing that Harron lifts verbatim and that Bale delivers in voiceover which gets to the heart of everything the novel, the movie, and our current world order is about:
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 and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.
People don’t matter. That’s the message. In the world that predatory capital has carved out for itself we are either ambulatory vassals of production and consumption, or — if you are fortunate enough to occupy that sphere — vacuous beings of such insane privilege that words like ‘labour’ and ‘value’ are just fragments of white noise. This is a sphere where the notion of a shared, or even individual, humanity appears to those within it at best an idealistic folly, and at worse a childish dream. A world where the unfettered and destructive side of the male ego reigns alongside profit as the alpha and the omega.
Patrick Bateman is the logical conclusion of that world. He has no definable job (amusingly every single one of his colleagues’ business cards has the title ‘Vice President’ on it) and we never get to see him actually do any work. He embodies all the ostensible signs of success that Western capitalism dictates to us (a high-flying job, an infinite collection of sharp suits, a fancy Central Park-facing apartment), and despite all this he seethes with rage and envy and descends into — real or imagined — bouts of extreme sadistic violence.
Patrick Bateman is an indictment and a warning, and the movie wrapped around him takes the best of Easton Ellis’ novel and imbues it with a wonderfully appropriate series of cinematic touches courtesy of Harron and her cinematographer, Andrzej Sekula (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction): the aforementioned ‘business card envy’ scenes, where the four Vice Presidents compare their meaningless but vital totems, and the way the camera frames Bale, his brow sweating as the slowed down sound of swords being sheathed is played over the fetishised imagery; the absolutely inspired casting of an immaculately-coiffed and greasy Justin Theroux, Justin Lucas, and Bill Sage as Bateman’s slimy little posse of excess and misogyny; the cuts and angles used whenever Bale is in dialogue with someone (most notably Willem Dafoe’s police detective) sublimely taking us into Bateman’s fractured psyche. If nothing else, American Psycho is an excellent Exhibit A in the ‘Why Film Adaptations Matter’ case file.
The movie, draped as it is in deft cinematic touches, famously also doesn’t shy away from using quite shocking and often misogynistic violence (as well as touches of horror) to put across its message. The remarkable thing about it is that while it could potentially appear gratuitous, when it is considered alongside the movie’s heavy thematic symbolism it becomes immediately apparent that it really couldn’t have gone any other way. Rather than being exploitative, it is appropriate. Anything less would have been dishonest.
It is essential that a woman made American Psycho. That women made it. The kind of merciless skewering that it trades in could only come from an outsider’s perspective. Predatory capitalism and the modern male ego have developed alongside each other in a destructive symbiosis; they reinforce and heighten each other’s worst tendencies, becoming a two-headed monster that thrives on subjugation. At the turn of the millennium Mary Harron not only dared to stare down this beast, she eviscerated it and laid its rotten core out for all to see.