Tuesday 2 August 2011

American Psycho (2000)


What can you really tell about a person from the image they project of themselves? If someone appears to be good, caring, and socially conscious, does it necessarily follow that they are? What if this is just a persona that they put on for other people? What if the reality of that person is much darker and more dangerous than you think? In the 1991 novel American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis conceived of such a person, a murderous psychotic that everyone believes to be harmless, so good that he’s actually kind of a simp. Setting it the 80s, the decade of the "Me Generation", it was also a satire on the drug-fuelled vacuity and self-absorbed nature of the upper-class elite having their heyday at the time. Nine years later, the highly controversial novel was finally brought to the big screen.

Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is handsome, wealthy and intelligent. He’s twenty-seven years old and living the good life. He’s also a homicidal lunatic whose obsession with murder and nightly escapades see him cut a bloody swathe through the streets of New York. Lately, though, he feels like his careful mask of sanity is starting to slip…

American Psycho is a tough read. Not even really because of the incredibly graphic depictions of sex and murder, often one leading to the other, but because of the sheer density of the material. The book is told, mostly, from the perspective of its main character, Patrick Bateman, whose mind works in a very interesting way. Sure, he’s a vicious maniac, but he’s also obsessed with making sure he fits in with those around him. As such, he’s highly concerned with details. So much of his concentration is taken up with noting exactly what people are wearing that it’s almost a psychosis in itself. There’s one instance in the novel when Bateman, on seeing someone he knows enter a bar, mentally notes everything they are wearing, what the label is for each item and runs through the alphabet four times before they’ve crossed the room to meet him. This rather concisely illustrates his level of obsession with the exterior, the frankly terrifying speed at which his mind works and his pathological need to keep his mind distracted, occupied by some meaningless task. It’s this last aspect that means a great deal. What is it he needs to distract himself from? Bateman answers this in an anecdote to his friends about infamous serial killer Ed Gein. Bateman asks, “Do you know what Ed Gein said about women?… ‘When I see a pretty girl walking down the street, I think two things. One part wants me to take her out, talk to her, be real nice and sweet and treat her right.’ Bateman’s friend asks, “And what did the other part think?” His reply, “What her head would look like on a stick.” Bateman finds this very amusing, but it’s a rather telling insight into the way he himself thinks, why he needs to distract himself by noting Armani suits and Rolex watches and luggage from Dolce & Gabbana. He needs to try to fit in because, if he doesn’t, his horrifying bloodlust will completely take over.

One of the weird things about the book is that, despite all of the murders and the sex and full chapters about Phil Collins and Whitney Houston, it’s actually very funny. Bateman may be a maniac, but he’s such a goofy sonofabitch, such a pantomimic character, such a complete and utter dork that you often completely forget about his desire to mutilate and kill. In fact, many of these scenes, shocking as they may be, are so ridiculously over-the-top that they come off as darkly comic anyway. The book itself is also a very sharp and witty satire on the rampaging egotism and self-obsessed vanity of the Wall Street elite. A moment of great humour comes when Bateman and his peers compare their business cards, seeing who has the best one. Never mind the fact that they all say Vice President (echoing a theme of near God-like power, but without the full weight of responsibility). Just notice the colouring, the font stylisation, the texture, the thickness… they’re all pretty much the exact same card, but for the little details that denote the subtle shades of superiority in their circle. Others may be able to shake this off easier, but Bateman is instantly plunged into meltdown, a world of self-doubt and rage. He must kill because the guy that he hates has a business card with a watermark.

It says a lot for the film that these various details and ideas are kept gleefully intact in the transition from page to screen. Writers Mary Harron (also the director) and Guinevere Turner (also with a small role) do a fine job of locating these moments and bringing them to life onscreen. They also do an excellent job of condensing some of the denser passages of the novel down to some choice sequences. As I previously mentioned, there are some moments in the book where entire chapters are dedicated to Huey Lewis, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston or the intricate technical detail of Bateman’s new stereo (that was a tough one). They have maintained this sense of absurd detail that concerns their protagonist’s mind, but they’ve also nicely captured the tone of the piece. Yes, it’s often quite unnerving, but it’s more frequently very amusing. Like the novel, it invites you to laugh at someone that you should be scared of, mainly because he’s actually a complete tool. Christ, he wears a tuxedo and rides in a limousine to pick up a hooker. The guy actually seems to think he's James Bond. They’ve also maintained the constant play of mistaken identity very well, though it’s too much a part of the story to be left ignored. There really isn’t a wasted moment or opportunity in the script... sort of... I'll get to that later.

Harron’s direction is interesting. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s actually really very good. I just get the occasional feeling that there’s a missed opportunity here and there, moments that would have been more resonant if tweeked just slightly. One such example is near the beginning of the film, when Bateman is in a club buying some drinks. He tries to use drink tickets, but is informed that they’re no good anymore and he’ll have to pay with cash. He happily does so, but as soon as the bartender’s back is turned, he tells her “You’re a fucking ugly bitch. I want to stab you to death, and then play around with your blood,” most of which we can only see if the mirror above the bar. She doesn’t hear him because the music is so loud (along with some degree of the self-absorbed nature of all of the characters), so when she turns back, he’s smiling again and goes on his way. I just feel like this would have carried more weight if all of his vicious threatening were seen only in the mirror, thus better echoing the theme of duality in the piece. However, this is only a small point. I’m certainly not going to crack down on her for her work. There’s actually a scene that has only one word of dialogue, but wonderfully sums up exactly how Bateman gets away with being what he is. He sees a woman walking down the street (the streets are always virtually deserted) and follows her a little. She stops at a pedestrian crossing, he stops right beside her. From looking forward, he looks to her, smiles and says “Hello.” She curtly says hello back and they both look forward again… and then she looks back at the nice handsome polite gentleman standing next to her. The light changes and the two start walking together, wordlessly, away from us and towards the darkness. It’s subtle and elegant and tells us just how easy it is for Bateman to snare a victim. Classic territory of people like Ted Bundy, who was so nice and calm that he once managed to talk himself out of a speeding ticket, despite having the bagged remains of a cheerleader in his backseat at the time. It’s positively chilling. And the title sequence does exactly what the titles of Dexter would do six years later, finding the vicious in the mundane. Harron really has done some excellent work.

There are strong performances throughout the film, but Christian Bale dominates all of them. It’s a superb act, layered and solid. Bale is, regardless of what he may be like in his regular life, a damn good actor, approaching every role with a fierce commitment. On first note, Bale certainly captures Bateman’s physicality. Bateman is as obsessed with maintaining his physique as he is with covering it with the best clothes money can buy, and Bale fully embraces this regimen and looks every inch the muscular fitness freak that’s needed. More than this, though, Bale captures the entire raging torrent inside Bateman. Two scenes stand out on this front. The first scene is when Bateman murders a colleague in his apartment whilst giving his critique on the career of Huey Lewis. It’s important to consider that, for serial killers like Bateman, murder is a substitute for the sex act, and this scene corresponds, in a very twisted manner, to a sex scene. An equivalent moment in another film would probably see the guy giddily prepare for the evening by pouring the girl a drink, putting on some romantic music (Marvin Gaye, classic), ensuring protection and making his move. Now, look at this one… Bateman giddiliy prepares for the evening by getting his victim drunk, putting on some music (Huey Lewis, because Bateman probably has no conception of what’s romantic), ensuring protection (he’s laid down some paper and donned a plastic raincoat) and making his move (swinging an axe into his victim’s forehead). Bale is hysterical in this scene, amping up the absurdity of the piece (he even moonwalks into the room, for God’s sake) and acting like a complete cheeseball before turning on a penny, and becoming an utter monster. That is superb control. The second scene to consider is Bateman’s cackling, sobbing, unsettling confession to his lawyer. It’s mostly in a single take and runs the complete gamut of frayed emotional intensity of a quickly devolving killer, and it’s very impressive. Bale even delivers the little moments expertly, such as his regular excuse that he has to “return some videotapes.” It’s always delivered with a weird kind of self-righteous force, as if he’s making a firm and resolute declaration of status that requires his utmost attention. Bale is on absolute fire in this film.

There is one thing that is something of a cause for concern in the movie, which it turns out is something from the book as well. I’ve already said that Harron’s direction is very good and that the script from herself and Turner does a fine job of transposing the novel to the screen. However, there is something of a debate regarding how it all ends, both in the book and the film. Ellis’ books often rest on a degree of ambiguity (In Less Than Zero, it was a few chapters in before I could pin down the gender of the main character), with some lack of certainty as to whether or not the crimes of American Psycho even took place. From my understanding of the novel, and the film, I believed it to be pretty clear that all of Bateman’s murders did not happen and existed only in his head. I’m certainly not alone on this one. In fact, I have only ever met one person who thought that Bateman really did kill all those people. Since that time, though, I have come to learn that Ellis, Harron and Turner all share the same perspective… of course he did it. I find this rather disquieting. I’m not exactly stupid, and I know some very smart people, so how can we have got things so clearly wrong? It would seem that there is plenty of evidence to support our case. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll stick to the film for this bit. There is one sequence that is so often offered as evidence of the “all in his head” school, which is towards the end and begins with Bateman trying to feed a cat into an ATM. He’s at the machine, taking out some money, as he regularly does. A stray cat starts to rub against his leg, so he picks it up. The ATM screen then reads ‘FEED ME A STRAY CAT’, which he tries to do. An old woman sees him and asks him what he’s doing, so he shoots her dead. This kicks off a short police chase, which sees him kill several other people, become involved in a typical Hollywood style shootout with the cops, blowing up a car with a single shot (which surprises even him), before ducking into his office building to evade the helicopter. This all smacks of the kind of juvenile fantasy that a dork who watches too many 80s action movies would cook up to feel important and noticed (there’s actually way more to it in the book). Are we to take it that these moments actually happened? That an ATM really did tell Bateman to feed it a cat? That he really did blow up a cop car with a single shot?

Keep in mind that Bateman narrates this film, so it is all being told from his perspective, which he willingly admits is rather skewed. Given the somewhat compromised nature of this telling, can we really trust anything that we see? The only time we leave Bateman as a narrative anchor is when we see his secretary, Jean (ChloĆ« Sevigny), discover his diary in his desk drawer, which is filled with detailed and disturbing drawings of what we have, until now, seen to be his genuine nightly activities. Is it not perfectly reasonable to think that perhaps these drawings are the beginning and end of his homicidal desires? Also, the points when one of his victims seems to still be alive, although we never seem them again, adds more to this. On the other hand, the constant points of mistaken identity throughout could just as easily cover this. Ellis has said that the reason Bateman finds it so difficult to confess or be caught is because that is part of the satire. Precisely because everyone is so self-involved and concerned with the pursuit of profit, each person a hideous personification of corporate America’s greed, that they genuinely couldn’t care less if one of their own is hacking up a bunch of whores and winos. Ellis makes the point that if Bateman didn’t kill people, this satirical point is rendered moot and the purpose of the novel made irrelevant… I’m not sure I agree with this, even if it means I’m apparently wrong. The satire does still exist within the piece, even if you disregard the “fact” that Bateman is killing people. The characters are still self-obsessed, vain, drug-crazed, profit-fuelled bastards. And whether he committed the crimes or not, the fact that they don’t even entertain Bateman’s confessions and apparent lunacy speak to this regard too. The point isn’t that Bateman has killed people. The point is that no one cares either way.

The only thing that I can really see coming mainly from this idea that he did kill these people is perhaps that the reason no one cares is because they are all the same. They are all equally possessed of the same drives and urges that Bateman feels, it’s just that they seem to handle it better than he does. This would give a degree of credence to the picture that everyone seems to have of Bateman, that he’s a wimp, a dweeb, “a lightweight.” The idea that Bateman believes that he is alone in these killer urges, whereas the “truth” is that he’s really not, seems to fly in the face of what would seem to be the popular notion amongst real serial killers and mass murderers. People like Charles Manson often make the point that they only thing that separates them from us is the final act itself. They say that inside we’re all just like them, we just haven’t got that far yet. In this case, it isn’t Bateman that’s the psycho; it’s the book, it's society. He’s the abnormal one because he seems to be the only one who thinks someone should care. The darkness of this implication is almost overwhelming, and is actually so huge that it’s difficult to believe that this is the correct reading from what we have on show. I really like the book, and the movie, but I feel somewhat unsettled by the final product not because of its message, but because of the disconnect that seems to exist between the intention and the reality. It rather says a lot that both Harron and Turner have said that they feel they failed in adequately expressing what they wanted to with the film, that their attempts to echo the ambiguity of the source rendered the film lacking in the final statement intended. For what it’s worth, the fact that, at the end of both the film and the book, I came away with the exact same conclusion surely speaks to how well they adapted the book. But then, what do I know, I thought it was all in his head…

Putting aside the disquieting ambiguity of the whole product, American Psycho is still a fine film, built around an absolutely searing performance by Christian Bale. It’s troubling, it’s funny, it’s thoroughly interesting and it really is something that can be debated endlessly. Maybe some of you can figure it out.

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