Directed by: Mary Harron
Premise: Adapted from Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a wealthy Wall Street executive by day but a murderous psychopath by night. As Bateman’s blood lust increases, his grip on sanity and reality continue to slip.
What Works: American Psycho is a creative take on the serial killer story. This is not a slasher film like Maniac, nor does it follow the format of a standard serial killer thriller like The Silence of the Lambs, although it does include nods to films like them. This is a satire both of the horror genre and of the upper class and it mixes horror tropes with scenarios of high society stories like Pride and Prejudice and The Secret of My Success. As a result, the film’s frights are less visceral and more intellectual. The horror of American Psycho is not found in its violence but in the juxtaposition of that violence against the sterile background of Wall Street culture. That’s where American Psycho’s satire comes in and it is also where the film provides its best material. Christian Bale gives a terrific performance as Bateman and the actor smartly plays the role as a man who is two dimensional. Bateman is not really a character so much as he is a satirical construct, much like the cast of Dr. Strangelove. This is in many ways a very funny movie, although its humor is entirely deadpan, and Bale does a great job playing the absurdity of this vacant human being. The satire is aided by some very well chosen music cues. Bateman’s analysis of the supposed artistic weight of Huey Lewis and the News and Whitney Houston add to his character’s consumer driven superficiality. Other music cues play in contrast to the tone of the story, such as “What’s on Your Mind” by Information Society and “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves, and these songs place the film in its 1980s setting while also providing some ironic subtext to the scenes they play under. As amusing as the satire is, American Psycho commits to the horror and it suddenly and jarringly shifts from moments of laugh out loud silliness to scenes of horror and brutality. These shifts, as abrupt as they are, work for the film because they convey Bateman’s decreasing stability and the film’s rhythms become more staccato as it drives towards its climax.
What Doesn’t: Some fans of the novel American Psycho may criticize the film for eliminating the extreme violence of the book. A film that incorporated that kind of violence would have to be an entirely different kind of project than what Mary Harron has created here and this version should be evaluated on its own merits. The climax of American Psycho, which seems intended to cross into parody, is not handled as well as the rest of the picture. It is out of place with the leaner style of the rest of the film and its hard action approach is departed from the more intimate and biological horror that preceded it. Thankfully this odd scene is couched by an effective denouement that brings together the themes of the story and wraps it up in a very satisfying way.
DVD extras: Commentary tracks, a documentary, a video essay, deleted scenes, and trailers.
Bottom Line: American Psycho is an impressive film and a unique adaptation of a very difficult novel. The film is more accessible to mainstream audiences than the novel but it still maintains the spirit and satire of the book. As a film it stands on its own two feet and is a startling and fascinating take on greed, consumerism and class privilege.
Episode: #311 (October 22, 2010)