American Psycho (2000)
By: Michael McQueen on June 28, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Sony (Australia). Region 2 & 4, PAL. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced.) English DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1. English, Spanish, Bulgarian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese Subtitles. 97 minutes
The Movie
Director: Mary Harron
Starring: Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Reese Witherspoon, Jared Leto, Chloe Sevigny
Screenplay: Mary Harron, Guinevere Turner
Music: John Cale
Tagline: Evil never looked so damn good
Country: USA
Remember when you first bought Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho? I do. It was the first time I'd ever seen a novel that came shrink-wrapped in plastic, displaying a warning label about its explicit content; the first book I had ever known to be considered so outrageous, so scandalous and morally reprehensible that it was given a classification that prevented minors from purchasing the novel, lest the inside pages would leave them permanently scarred and damaged. Needless to say, I had to have it. The nice lady behind the counter took a galnce at my proposed purchase and a look of grief washed over her face, as if the devil himself was smiling at her from beneath the paper back cover. She informed me that, after I had removed the shrink wrapping, the book could not be returned and that the store bore no further responsibility for my customer satisfaction: if I became mentally unbalanced for having read this forbidden book, it was my own damn fault and I would be on my own. I've never felt so exhilarated to be a bookshop before.

Ellis novel is without doubt one of, if not, the most sick, depraved, disgusting and psychologically tormenting novels of all time. Few writers can boast of an imagination dark enough to explore the repertoire of perverted sexual violence Ellis describes, or the sheer audacity to record, in such pornographic detail, the exploits of nihilistic amoralist Patrick Bateman; a protagonist who is equal parts obsessive-compulsive neurotic and hedonistic homicidal psychopath. What really set Ellis apart from his contemporaries (Cornwell, Patterson et al) was that American Psycho told its story from the perspective of the serial killer, not the cop pursuing him. In fact, Ellis never concerned himself with forensic/procedural elements: the absence of any moral law whatsoever was perhaps the scariest factor of all. Actually reading the book was gruelling and mortifying; an experience that frequently made me sick to my stomach and question my humanity…naturally, I had rather high hopes for this movie.

The plot of American Psycho revolves around Patrick Bateman, a rich and handsome Wall Street executive who, unbeknownst to his friends, colleagues and fiancé, lives a secret life outside the office; one that involves 'murders and executions', rather than mergers and acquisitions. Bateman is one of the most complex and intelligent psychopaths in popular myth: he's obsessive, materialistic and vain, yet he possesses enough reflexivity to question his own disorders and motives. Christian Bale does a remarkable job portraying the neurotic Bateman: at one moment his demeanour is passive and calm as he smiles serenely at a bar maid, the next he's screaming "I want to stab you to death and play in the blood!" What's truly disturbing about Bateman is that his acts of violence seem random and unprovoked; in actuality, the catalysts for his actions are often minor and trivial details, like the relative superiority of a colleague's business card design. Director and co-writer Mary Harron re-creates the 'greed is good' zeitgeist of the eighties, and attempts to personify the inherent insecurity and instability of such an obsessive outlook in Bateman, whose only emotions are "greed and disgust". As such, it is the minor details of American Psycho that matter the most: hand-tailored suits, exhaustive skin care regimes, immaculately crafted business cards; dinner reservations at the exclusive Dorsia restaurant is the plastic Holy Grail of Bateman's material world.

At the heart of American Psycho is a bleak social satire of the materialism and excessive superficiality of the eighties that is often punctuated by black comedy concerning appearance and social rank. The irony lies in Bateman taking these obsessions to their most extreme conclusion: when he feels his status is threatened, Bateman's carefully composed façade crumbles and he eliminates his competitors in a frenzied rampage; the scene where Bateman hacks up his colleague Paul Allen (Jared Leto), whilst lecturing him on Huey Lewis and the News, is American Psycho's most comically savage moment.

Less comical are the instances when Bateman kills not to defend his pride, but just because he enjoys it. Again, Bale's serene and charming charisma is employed, but now represents something truly sinister about the character. Bateman's primary targets are hookers and escorts, whom he lures back to his apartment for video-taped threesomes and torture sessions. The grotesque sexual violence, which Ellis took delight in describing all the savage minutia, is mostly implied here, as the scene cuts from Bateman fondling a selection of carefully organised surgical implements to both hookers, now somewhat mutilated, storming out of the apartment. It's an underwhelming touch, unfortunately; we were lead to expect far more gorier things from the book, and omitting the viscera seems to miss satirical point of the novel: that Bateman's material excesses, and their inherent emptiness, are only matched by his homicidal excesses, and the emptiness that accompanies feeling no emotion one way or the other. Things get far more graphic later on, though, when a fleeing hooker is pursued by a naked Bateman wielding a chainsaw, covered in blood. It's hard not to appreciate this darkly comic moment for its excessive satiric undertone, but it doesn't match the gory heights of the novel. I often wondered if this was the result of a female director being enlisted, as most of the violence in the book was, admittedly, highly misogynistic; though perhaps I'm being presumptuous about Mary Harron's interpretation.

General consensus appears to be that this adaptation didn't live up to the hype generated by the book: the sicko violence was downplayed, or omitted altogether, too much of the source material was compromised, the ending sucked and the film was far too stylised. Most of these criticism are valid enough – in fact, they echo most of the disdain levelled at other filmic adaptations of Ellis' novels, such as Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction: 'great books, shit films'. These sorts of complaints are inevitable when dealing with an author as vivid as Ellis, particularly when regarding his magnum opus, American Psycho. If an uncompromised faithful-to-the-word adaptation were to be made, it would most likely visually surpass the films of notorious Italian nut-jobs like D'Amato, Fulci and Argento in perverted sex and misanthropic brutality; it would doubtlessly be X-rated, never to be released in cinemas and most likely banned in Australia. That said Harron's moderated adaptation falls short of being the worthy screen translation Ellis' work has been waiting for. The first half of the movie is brimming with potential, building-up to something it doesn't quite deliver in the second half. It's unfortunate, as I was looking forward to watching Bateman's lack of compassion and utter disregard for human life in all its big-screen glory. What's more, the ending has been entirely changed: a crime I simply cannot forgive.
Presented in 2:35:1 aspect ratio with a 16:9 enhancement, American Psycho looks remarkably sleek and stylised. Some fans suggest that this gloss robbed the film of some much-needed grittiness, but I think they're missing the point: the world of American Psycho is naturally one of style and excess, which is fanatically obsessed with every public detail being groomed to perfection, almost to the point of parody. The look of the film perfectly suits the satirical jab at the glitzy late-eighties; the credits give special thanks to the costume department.
Both English and Spanish audio options are presented in Dolby 5.1: the original score is provided by ex-Velvet Underground man John Cale and is as creepy and atmospheric as you'd expect. The real highlights are the inspired 'found' music in the film; all eighties classics like Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine", Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible", Huey Lewis and the News' "Hip to be a Square" etc. Rockin' stuff.
Extra Features
The most worthy mention here is a behind-the-scenes featurette that compiles quick sound-bites from actors and the director about making the film. There's not a lot of insight here, but Harron makes an interesting point about her 'rescuing' the novel from its torrid reputation by foregrounding the satirical impetuses in her adaptation. A noble cause to be sure, but probably misguided. Other features include 'Talent Biographies', a trailer, and an isolated track of Cale's music score.
The Verdict
Taking on American Psycho was always going to be an ambitious project for any filmmaker – regardless of gender, talent or experience. While Harron valiantly attempts to straddle the films duel personalities – satire and horror – the result is uneven and unsatisfying. The most irksome aspect is the 'revised' ending of the narrative, which takes one-liberty-too-many with the novel. To be fair, we're never going to get the film we want from Hollywood (the novel is basically un-filmable as the result would always be compromised to some degree) so this is about the best we can hope for. It's not great, but it's not all bad either – probably more satisfying if you haven't read the book.
Movie Score
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