by Jon Bastian
Director Mary Harron manages to slice and dice a complex book into a bite-size movie and still deliver Brett Easton Ellis’s cutting satire of ’80s yuppie excess.
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Novels, by their very nature, are extraordinarily difficult to translate to the big screen. That’s because, frequently, the most interesting parts of books take place inside the characters’ heads, not something which easily lends itself to a visual depiction. American Psycho is a particularly tricky example, because all of it takes place inside the head of the titular lunatic, Patrick Bateman. To further complicate matters, while a lot of things happen in Brett Easton Ellis’ tome, there’s not a lot of story. Most of it takes place in various tony eateries and clubs in New York, when Bateman isn’t offing his latest victim in particularly graphic and nasty detail.
All of which makes it more surprising that American Psycho, the movie, does work so well as a film and manages to be a competent distillation of its source. The film feels exactly like the book, lifted verbatim, and the scenes Ellis created on paper work wonderfully on celluloid — the brittle but banal dinner dialogue, a moment when one of Bateman’s would-be male victims completely disarms him by making a pass at him, Bateman’s futile rants at a Chinese laundry. Events may occur out of order or telescoped and combined, sliced and diced like our anti-hero’s victims, but they’re there and they work. Granted, most of the gore and ninety per cent of the obsession with detail have been left behind, but that’s probably just as well. Much has been made of the fact that it was a few seconds of sex scene and none of the violence that had to be trimmed in order to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating. However, for all the gleeful mayhem in Ellis’ book, there’s surprisingly little violence in the movie.
What we’re left with is a slick, quick trip through the fading months of Reagan’s second term as we follow Bateman (Christian Bale) through his days and nights of excess. He works for a huge Wall Street firm, Price & Price, a company that specializes in mergers and acquisitions (“Murders and executions,” as Bateman puts it) and has a seemingly infinite number of vice presidents, of which Batemen is one. It’s a world of surface flash, where image is everything. It’s also the world that Bateman uses to provide a veneer of normalcy for himself. At first glance, he looks like any of the other yuppies, an anonymous parade of designer suits, suspenders and non-prescription eyewear. But Bateman is definitely twisted.
The film covers a lot of the book’s territory in a remarkably short time, compressing a good hundred pages into a few minutes before we get to the first sign that Bateman isn’t all that normal, as he brutally murders a homeless man for no apparent reason. At the same time, he’s sort of dating Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), a woman who’s so obsessed with planning their wedding she doesn’t even notice Bateman treat her with complete contempt. When he’s not ignoring Evelyn, he’s banging Courtney (Samantha Mathis), fiancée of Bateman’s associate, Luis Carruthers (Matt Ross). A few dinners, a couple of club hops, some recreational abuse of hookers and pretty soon, Bateman is planting an ax in another associate’s face, mainly for the sin of having a better business card. It’s this murder that serves as the lynchpin for the film, as a private detective, Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe), comes to inquire about the disappearance, seemingly zeroing in on Bateman. Of course, this doesn’t stop Bateman from engaging in his favorite hobby and, while the bodies may not pile up before our eyes, they do pile up, as a later victim (Cara Seymour) discovers — a moment right out of Bluebeard.
Incidentally, here’s an American Psycho bit of trivia for you: the Bale/Dafoe connection gives us a pair of duelling Jesuses. Dafoe played Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ and Bale played him in the cable movie Mary, Mother of Jesus. Try that one at your next cocktail party.
Christian Bale is the center of the film, and pulls off admirably what must have been one of the more difficult characters in modern cinema. Bateman is an enigma, a raving psychopath hidden inside an absolutely bland if cosmetically perfect exterior. He does lose it at times, but most of the witnesses of those moments don’t make it out alive. To everyone else, he’s so low-key and plain he’s almost anonymous, constantly being mistaken for other people. It’s quite an acting challenge, and Bale manages it, playing everything so far under the surface that it almost doesn’t seem to be there yet is abundantly apparent to the only witnesses who do survive — the audience. When he launches into one of his pre-slaughter monologues analyzing the oeuvre of a late 80’s pop artist (one of the book’s great running jokes) Bale takes his words absolutely seriously — which is the only way to get through an analysis of post-Peter Gabriel group Genesis without looking completely ridiculous. Bale absolutely gets this character, and it’s his performance that sets the right tone and holds everything else together.
If there’s a flaw in American Psycho, it’s that it feels a bit slight and foreshortened, the result being that we suddenly arrive at the conclusion before we were quite ready to make the trip. What turns out to be the climactic scene just happens, without warning, and it feels isolated from the events beforehand. There’s also the matter of all the characters being somewhat cold and distant — but that was half the point of the original and can’t be blamed on the film. Screenwriters Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner could have bitten off a bit more of the book, if you’ll pardon the expression, and at least fleshed out the story a little more. Pardon that expression, too.
When Ellis’ novel was published almost ten years ago (after its original publisher backed out) there was a lot of outcry and little understanding. American Psycho was not meant as a glorification of violence against anyone. It was an indictment of the Reagan era and the yuppie scum who reaped its fruits, a time when the game of self-indulgent consumer one-upmanship was the major upperclass pastime and the gap between rich and poor became a canyon. It’s significant that Bateman’s first victims in the novel are a homeless man and a pedestrian he assumes, correctly or not, to be gay — these groups were two of the bigger victims of that era. Most of the rest of his victims are women — the other group most mistreated by Reagan-Bush.
While the film certainly can’t go into the depth of the novel, it does manage to get at the theme, pointing the finger at a time just when we need it, placing the blame for societal violence not on some phantom liberal straw man, but on conservative fear and greed. The actual perpetrator may not be caught because nobody is looking in the right place. It’s a place we need to look now, and American Psycho, like American Beauty before it, is the right film at the right time. It may be nowhere near as good as last year’s best picture, but it does carry a message. Let’s just hope that, this time, people get that message, instead of just dwelling on the surface. To do the latter is to commit the sin of Patrick Bateman, and that, as Ellis always reminds us in his work, is the ultimate evil.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles and is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.
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