Review by Simon-Astley Scholfield
It’s all a matter of taste and appearances. Beware the blood-like sauce dripping delicately onto sparse servings of exquisitely prepared meats in the opening restaurant scene of American Psycho. For one of the men at the dinner table, this nouvelle cuisine is stirring a novel hunger for flesh of another kind. Along with his co-diners, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), scion of the idle rich, never works but spends an inordinate amount of time in such exclusive Manhattan eateries and men’s clubs. From the conversation it’s obvious that Bateman holds anti-Semitic, misogynistic, homophobic, and AIDS-phobic views that are even more extreme than those of his companions. Moreover, this élitist doesn’t just hate the poor and anyone else who happens to be different to him. He also daydreams about doing truly terrible things to them…
Bored by their excessively luxurious existence, Bateman and his corporate buddies pass their ample free time competing to see who can get into the latest upmarket establishment, who possesses the real estate with the most exceptional views, and who has the most refined business card. The highly-strung Bateman soon becomes frustrated by the comparative successes of one of his peers, Paul Allen (Jared Leto). One night, after a bout of drinking, he takes Allen back to his apartment (which is as beautiful, neat, white, expensive and vacuous as he is). Turning up the music, he murders him most horridly and dumps the body. A destitute black man in an alley becomes another of Bateman’s victims. To borrow a phrase and a song title from the 1980s (in which the film is set), Bateman is an “equal opportunity bigot” with some very “bad habits.” Detective Donald Kimball (played in glorious caricature by Willem Dafoe) soon arrives at Bateman’s office to ask questions about Allen’s suspicious disappearance. Does the animated Kimball (who resembles a remarkably disturbing cross between Pruneface and Mumbles from The Dick Tracy Show), suspect that Bateman’s involved?
The horror of Bateman’s serial killing is portrayed through his relationship with street hooker, Christie (Cara Seymour). He picks her up from a desolate downtown kerb, and whisks her away by limousine to his uptown apartment. She’s hired to perform all night in a threesome with him and an upmarket female prostitute, with the events recorded by Bateman for his video collection. Later, when he returns to her kerb to collect her for another sex session, Christie resists, explaining that during their last encounter she ended up at “Emergency.” Obviously desperate, she nonetheless again enters his car…
While Christie looks intact on the surface, some clues suggest the location of her internal damages and her ultimate fate. Suffice to say that Bateman’s gratuitously-violent and pornographic desires are indicated by his choice of videos: the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Inside Lydia’s Ass. He watches this teen chick slasher film and lipstick lesbian anal porno video (which respectively exemplify the 1970s and 1980s contributions to ultra-misogynist screen culture), for his entertainment. Put two and two together and you pretty much get the picture of what happens to Christie, even if not all at once, and even though every detail of her downfall doesn’t appear on-screen.
The subtext is clear, if bordering on the ideologically unsound. Patrick and Christie represent such extremes of gender and socio-economic class that they play out an allegory on capitalist inequalities: the rich fuck the poor to death through the poor’s tightest orifice (before consuming their remains). But surely, such a conventionally gender arrangement--in which man represents the rich powerful phallic killer and woman the poor victimised black hole--is rather uncomplicated and pessimistic? Other films about sexual violence and cannibalism have subverted such gender roles. In Eating Raoul (1982) gay director, Paul Bartel, presented a man as the object desired by both a man and a woman, while in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), Peter Greenaway took these themes a step further by ridiculing Thatcherism. In Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the female FBI agent wins over the male serial killers.
While offering only glimpses of satire on Reaganism and sexism, American Psycho does have some saving graces. When Luis (Matt Ross) comes out as gay in a gents toilet, his admission ironically saves him from the clutches of the psycho, and Bateman’s secretary, Jean (Chloë Sevigny), unknowingly escapes the killer when her intuition is sparked by his lack of regard for his fiancée, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon). The distinct visual parallels between Bateman’s blood-splattered bedsheets and the fashionable diners’ bloodied white dinner plates highlight the already fine line between serial-killing cannibals and the consumers of slaughtered animals. The Smiths 1986 song “meat is murder” came to mind.
Mary Harron has crafted a compelling film version of Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 book about the lack of morality in postmodern America, as typified by the excesses of the greed-is-good 1980s. As the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen today, this spoof on yuppie yuckiness remains relevant. Harron’s American Psycho seems to draw on two popular landmark films that heralded the 1980s: American Gigolo (1980) and An American Werewolf in London (1981). Like Julian Kaye (Richard Gere) in Gigolo, Patrick Bateman in Psycho is a handsome young man who works out obsessively (and the camera pans attentively over Bale’s pecs and abs as another did over those of Gere in Gigolo). The chilling moments of terror and suspense in Harron’s Psycho work like those in Werewolf because of the very lack of visible violence or use of special effects. For a gorgeous monster Bateman is a consummate creation. In her poignant I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), Harron exposed the depth of the hardships in the real life of Valerie Solanas, the gun-toting lesbian sex worker and Twentieth Century icon, to bring dignity to the memory of that outsider. On the other hand, in her fictitious American Psycho, Harron presents Patrick Bateman, the man who supposedly has it all, as a cool, shallow and calculating devil who deserves no sympathy.