So yes, like most everyone else last week I did see the amazing premiere of The Dark Knight Rises and no, this will not be a post on that movie just yet. Expect one eventually, but not now. I prefer to hold off posting on new films until I can have a physical copy in my possession, and I loved that movie too much to settle for a grainy camrip for stills and analyses.
So instead I decided to take a look at another film I was reminded of while watching Christian Bale go about his metropolitan adventures in Armani suits — Mary Harron’s 2000 film, American Psycho.
The first time I saw this movie with my roommate in Princeton, I wasn’t a huge fan. I’m not sure if it was the blatant misogyny, the sick humor, or the uncomfortable fact that I was still in classes with many of the boys who would one day grow up to be the briefcase-toting, suit-wearing, economy-killing Wall Street Men that this movie vilified. The second time around, removed from the East Coast and on the opposite end of the career spectrum, I found the movie hilarious.
The film stars Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, an executive at an investment banking firm who, in between a parade of fancy dinners, swanky parties, and business card duels, finds the time to blow off steam by killing unsuspecting victims (mostly women). The murders finally catch up with him when Bateman kills a fellow coworker and people finally start asking questions. From there the movie continues, well, pretty much in the same way it had been going, but with Bateman slowly unraveling toward an end which he finds just as unsatisfying as his beginning.
In Roger Ebert’s favorable review of American Psycho, he declares that it’s fitting that a woman (director Mary Harron) “transformed a novel about blood lust into a movie about men’s vanity.” The vanity becomes perfectly clear as the film starts to resemble a parody of men rather than a darkly comedic film about actual men who do terrible things. But vanity to what end? The tension between what these men do versus what they are is one of the driving forces of the film.
American Psycho is an exploration in identity, expressing the attempt to distinguish oneself from the drab, generic anonymity that comes from favoring lifestyle over life itself. Bret Easton Ellis, author of the novel of the same name that serves as the basis for the film explains that the story came about from his own (hopefully homicide free) experiences in a similar environment.
“American Psycho came out of a place of severe alienation and loneliness and self-loathing. I was pursuing a life – you could call it the Gentleman’s Quarterly way of living- that I knew was bullshit, and yet I couldn’t seem to help it. “American Psycho” is a book about becoming the man you feel you have to be, the man who is cool, slick, handsome, effortlessly moving through the world, modeling suits in Esquire, having babes on his arm. It’s about lifestyle being sold as life, a lifestyle that never seemed to include passion, creativity, curiosity, romance, pain. Everything meaningful wiped away in favor of surfaces, in favor of looking good, having money, having six-pack abs, dating the hottest porn star, going to the hottest clubs.”
(Bret Easton Ellis quoted in Haws)
The result, Harron tells us, of swapping lifestyle for life is unsurprisingly, the loss of identity. All of the men in American Psycho are generic, rolling off the same assembly line and into the same offices. Even the film’s title “American Psycho” has a generic ring to it, as if this variety of psycho is yet another role to be filled by whoever is willing. Bateman steps up to the plate. But for Patrick, identity is already a lost cause as he explains in the beginning. Behind the mask, he plainly tells us that he is simply not there.
“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me. Only an entity. Something illusory,” Bateman tells us in his opening monologue, but does anyone seem to care? Worse yet, can anyone even tell? The film tells us no. These are men who are interchangeable, even confusing identities amongst themselves. Their existences overlap and become intertwined, trading lives like stocks and bonds.
Ebert remarks that the main difference between Bateman and other men is that Bateman acts on the violent urges he feels instead of suppressing them like the rest of society. However throughout the film, it is this lack of inhibition that paradoxically makes him increasingly invisible. The serial killer becomes an elusive figure in the story. Instead of the headline-grabbing, night-stalking mastermind that society has made him out to be, the serial killer in American Psycho is not even worth remembering. Bateman is met with blank stares when he tries to bring up disturbing anecdotes about Ed Gein and Ted Bundy. No one knows who he’s talking about, and no one cares.
Everyone is perfectly happy to maintain the illusion of Patrick Bateman — nameless, faceless, 20-something yuppie in a sea of nobodies just like him. Bateman rails against this prison of anonymity but no matter how loud he shouts, no one hears him. He doesn’t have to bother keeping up the facade, the rest of the world will do it for him. When he tells his fiancee that he needs “to engage in homicidal behavior on a massive scale” and can’t stop, she apologizes for bringing up the wedding and changes the subject. When he calls his lawyer and confesses to having killed and partially cannibalized nearly 30 people, his lawyer just laughs, mistaking him for another client when he commends him on playing such a funny joke on that loser Patrick Bateman.
Even the universe appears to get in on the fun, erasing the consequences of Bateman’s murderous actions in a way that makes us question if these things ever happened at all.
Which leaves us with left with a revision to the old question; if you confess to the murders of 30 people and there’s no one around to believe you, does it even matter? We leave Bateman pondering this question as he remains trapped in a vortex with no past, no future, no catharsis, and no punishment.
Ebert, Roger. “American Psycho.” <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20000414/REVIEWS/4140303/1023>
Haws, Marie. “A Psychopath and the Female Gaze.” <http://blogs.suntimes.com/foreignc/2012/03/american-psycho.html>