It’s movie time again. Today’s feature presentation is the psychological thriller from 2000 called American Psycho. The film was directed by Mary Harron who also co-wrote the screenplay which is based on the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis. The movie version is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the source with the overall themes and main character arc very much like the novel. However, many of the book’s graphic descriptions of Bateman’s gruesome exploits are only implied. This was a low budget film, but it did make effective use of its limited resources and went on to see a fairly wide theatrical release, but still less than a typical studio film.
In a broad stroke the story is a satire on 1980s yuppie culture. The word “yuppie” meaning Young Urban Professional came into widespread usage during the 1980s though the concept of a young business executive had been talked about and described since at least the 1960s. The film’s protagonist, Patrick Bateman, is in a way the ultimate yuppie: intelligent, healthy, fit, rich, basically “he has it all” – a capitalist success story. But there is another side, a very dark side, to handsome, young, and even initially charming, Patrick Bateman.
At first, Bateman seems very methodical and organized. His apartment is clean and neatly furnished, he has a good job, and he finished a good university. However, all this capitalist success is juxtaposed with an incredible superficiality. Bateman is particular, to the point of obsession, with details in his life. This is first seen when he describes his morning routine – as he gets up and walks about his impeccably organized apartment he narrates in a way that it is clear that he is driven by obsession. The way he works out, the way he showers, what soaps and cleansers he uses, to even how he applies them and why he buys them in the first place is all the result of a desire for longevity so that he can live longer in his world of pleasures. The scene ends with Bateman basically summing up his current state of existence: “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there.” Patrick Bateman is just a vessel of corporate America, traveling a pre-plotted course to an already established destination so that he can carry out predetermined tasks to ensure that the establishment continues to intake profit as unopposed as possible.
This callousness is rampant throughout the film. When Bateman is riding in a taxi with his fiancée, Evelyn, for a night out, he is annoyed that she keeps talking about their upcoming wedding since it interferes with him listening to the newest pop song. He doesn’t even really like her and calls her “my supposed fiancée.” Interesting is that Evelyn is just as superficial, Bateman may be ignoring her, but how can she not notice the fact? Does she care as little about him as he about her? In the next scene, the two of them reach the restaurant where they are to meet some friends and Bateman is worried that they won’t be seated at a “good table” but is relieved when the people they are meeting are at table he is content with. In his narration Bateman admits to an affair he is having with one of Evelyn’s friends, Courtney, who is the fiancée of Carruthers, a co-worker of his. His narration is also packed with not so subtle insults, particularly when describing people, which shows what he really thinks of everyone: he doesn’t really give a shit.
He tells his secretary, Jean, what to wear, obviously to find her more visually appealing since he has to see her everyday at the office. After having sex with Courtney in one scene he just leaves her, despite her showing some desire for a deeper connection between them, though this is likely a futile effort not just because she is extending warmth to the cold Bateman, but because she herself is much like him thus incapable of a real relationship in the first place. Bateman is also jealous of other peoples’ business cards, especially if his are complimented less in relation to others. When looking closely at Paul Allen’s business card he seems to relish it in his narration while his face has his typical cold and empty stare. Bateman’s face is a key image throughout the film.
In the business card scene we also see that all the business cards have the same title, Vice President, and the same phone number. While it is true that all the men work in the same company, surely their direct office number, the one they would have on a private business card, would have at least an extension listed. The fact that it doesn’t goes hand-in-hand with the fact that people often confuse one another in the film. When Paul Allen approaches Bateman he addresses him as Marcus Halberstram, whom Patrick calls a dickhead in his narration and says that although he and Halberstram go to the same barber he has “a slightly better haircut.” This confusing of identities is another running theme and is means that these people are basically interchangeable, they are not true individuals, more like robots or cattle. They are goys who have been given so much pride that they believe themselves to be the masters. A variant on this theme is people failing to acknowledge close friends, such as Evelyn being surprised to see Bateman at a Christmas party. “I was here, you just didn’t notice,” he says. They must have a real intimate relationship. This scene also has Evelyn saying “Merry X-mas!” to people, which is the commercialized shortening of “Merry Christmas.” What used to be meaningful celebration has now degenerated to pure materialism.
The first restaurant scene, in which Bateman narrates that he is having an affair, he also states, rather casually, that he suspects Evelyn of having an affair with Timothy Bryce, another one of Bateman’s co-workers. All these people seem to be together as friends just so that in secret they can all exploit another. Their little talk veers into politics and Bateman states his solution to all of the World‘s problems: “Well, we have to end apartheid for one. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger. We have to provide food and shelter for the homeless, and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights, while also promoting equal rights for women. We have to encourage a return to traditional moral values. Most importantly, we have to promote general social concern and less materialism in young people.” How that can be seen as anything other than empty slogans and naïve ideals is beyond me. Especially since Bateman is in a position of power in society and he could use his money and efforts to actually help others, but he chooses, like all his “friends” choose: self-help and more than likely it’s at the expense of other people, even the “friends.”
The Madness of Materialism
The film’s main theme is how excess eventually leads madness. The political connotations are all implied, but metaphor and symbolism in art is effective when it is discovered by the viewer and not preached by the artist. Thus, like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (to which I have referred to before in this sense), American Psycho isn’t about any one person, place, or even about any particular era. Rather the film is about a general phenomenon: material desire and how it destroys a healthy existence. Also, in this case it happens to be a force that is gripping our World with increasing viciousness. Bateman gives us his own version of this idea: “I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why. My nightly bloodlust has over flown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.”
Bateman’s materialism and relentless pursuit of fancy foods, expensive toys, and sexual adventure has led him, first, to murder during select nights, but now these urges are mixing. He is losing control and his methodical yet vicious nature is slipping into utter madness. This theme of ambiguity is actually present in the opening shot as we see what appear to be drops of blood falling, but turn out to be syrup and raspberries for a fancy restaurant dish. Also, note the knife that cuts into the steak: a blade slicing flesh, also known as murder. This bit even has an exaggerated sound effect of the “chop.”
This idea of inter-meshing urges appears much more clearly as Patrick is filming his romp with the prostitutes. Evelyn must have gotten boring, so he first added porn, then went to hiring a prostitute, then two at a time, and then to making his own porno films with the hired girls… a spiral of excess. It is not clear what Bateman does to these women before they leave, but they are not happy and at least one of them bleeding; his urges are slowly becoming indistinguishable.
In a club where Bateman meets a model she mishears “murders and executions” for “mergers and acquisitions.” It seems work and murder are becoming one and the same. In fact, the film’s first murder, that of a homeless man, seems to be behind the Wall Street Stock Exchange, Bateman passes it right before he meets the man. A dirty little Wall Street secret? In his failed dinner date with Jean, Bateman’s dialog is clearly doublespeak, he talks about how he might “hurt” Jean if they get involved. She understands this as Bateman not being able to commit to a relationship since he is officially engaged, thus their involvement would be a one-night-stand. Bateman, of course, means “I might have to kill you, because I am utterly insane.”
The second prostitute scene is the final meshing of insane desires. He coaxes Christy the prostitute to come join him for another romp. She is hesitant and says, “I had to go to emergency last time.” However, the sight of the fat wad of money convinces her to go anyway. Earlier in the film Bateman killed Paul Allen in a scene with a pop song playing, thus linking art to murder, and is now pretending to be Allen to the point that he takes Christy to Allen’s apartment which is next to the Guggenheim Museum, a subtle detail, but art is about to meet murder again. There is another girl in this scene, Elizabeth, a friend of Bateman’s whom he drugs and gets to make out with Christy while he watches and rambles about a favorite song of his… there’s the music… and in the next scene as he is having sex with Elizabeth we see that he actually BIT her. Bateman’s mouth is bloody and a shocked Christy runs out of the apartment, but not before finding many dead bodies in some of the side rooms. As Bateman chases her with a chainsaw note the framing in the first shot with the chainsaw, it looks like a phallus. With Bateman’s bloody mouth and naked body we see all of his material desires as one: sex is violence, violence is food, and it is all encompassed by Bateman’s proudest possession, his own soulless body. He is now literally “utterly insane” in his pursuit of materialism.
Christy is a polar opposite figure to Bateman here, and the prostitute we initially didn’t really care for before is suddenly a scared victim. A victim of not just Patrick Bateman, but more importantly, a victim of what he symbolizes. In a rampant consumerist society run by the all mighty dollar, people out of desperation often turn to any method they can find to get the money they need to live. Christy sells her body. She too is guilty of materialism and selling her dignity as she takes the money knowing full well Bateman will likely hurt her again, but now it gets her killed. In a way she is tragic figure. In a National Socialist Folk State, no citizen would have to resort to such undignified methods of survival, only rampant capitalism in consumerist society allows such things to happen to innocent and often honest people. It is the materialism in society that destroys the nobility in people and then gets them to destroy others and, often even themselves. If everyone in society lives as a hunter, then everyone is at risk of being hunted.
The scene ending in Christy’s death is definitely the most shocking scene of the film, but a key thing is that it has surreal quality to it that leads to yet another interesting idea.
In a supposedly posh apartment building, in the middle of a big city, Patrick Bateman chases a screaming woman who is pounding on doors and yelling for help, he then drops the chainsaw several stories down and impales her… and no one notices.
How is that at all possible? The final act of the film is packed with increasingly bizarre events such as an ATM displaying a message, “Feed me a stray cat” just as a cat is walking by. An old lady notices Bateman trying to stuff the poor feline into the machine and protests so he whips out a gun and shoots her. Patrick Bateman, proud to display all of his possessions, including many tools of murder, did not once mention this gun before. The police hear the shooting and give chase, so Bateman shoots at the police cars and they… explode. Not just to our surprise but to Bateman’s as well, he even looks at the rather unconvincing looking explosion what looks like a cheap movie effect, in total confusion. After gunning some more people down he frantically calls his lawyer, Harold Carnes, and leaves a voicemail confessing that he killed many people over the past months.
The next morning, still not fully articulate he calls Jean at his office, but she doesn’t understand his rambling. She goes to Patrick’s desk and finds an appointment book that first has little notes, but then increasingly violent doodles. This escalation mirrors Bateman’s spiral to madness, however… was this just a delusion? At a bar Bateman sees Carnes and asks him of he got the message to which the lawyer laughs and says it was a great joke. Ironically, Carnes recognizes Bateman as someone else and thinks the impression of Patrick Bateman over the phone was very well done. Also, Paul Allen is revealed to be alive and in London. When Bateman killed Allen earlier in the film, he then faked Allen taking a trip to London in order to explain his disappearance. Yet, now Paul Allen is actually in London. A subtle detail of the Allen murder being a delusion is when Bateman is dragging the corpse and the trail of blood disappears, we also never see the body as it is supposedly in a bag. In fact, virtually every scene where Bateman threatens someone or unleashes violence, contain hints of delusion: alcohol (in frame or drunk people present), smoke, or mirrors. In a scene where he yells at an owner of a laundromat he leans in and shouts at her, but then after the angle cuts back to him, he is standing up straight… did the shouting actually happen or is he hallucinating?
This brings to question the authenticity of not just his narration, but of his entire perception of reality. Is he living in a delusion? Has his materialistic greed rendered him pathetic and impotent? Were his gruesome acts just a fantasy of having and enacting power, but really he is a hollow powerless slave? That seems to be the case. Bateman’s last dialog and the last lines of the film are the following lament: “There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it I have now surpassed. My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone, in fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape, but even after admitting this there is no catharsis, my punishment continues to elude me and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself; no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”
Just like Patrick Bateman didn’t really care for anyone or anything, nobody and nothing cares for him. He is a vessel without purpose doomed to the callousness of his existence. Not even the sensation of a failed joke will be granted him. In a way, he is a dying Lone Wolf, he pursued his own selfish way so much that now he is forever severed from compassion.
Interestingly, the very Aryan-looking Christian Bale played John Preston in Equilibrium, a film that showed a callous man overcoming his emptiness and finding purpose and even Arya and this played out as part of a greater revolution. Here Bale plays the condemned Patrick Bateman, a man who doesn’t find any way out, just realizes his bleak predicament. Given Christian Bale’s Aryan phenotype, Aryanists can see this film as representing the misunderstanding of Aryanism in contemporary society. Only its superficial aspects have survived, and even these are poorly represented. Order, discipline and athleticism in life shouldn’t solely be boosters for an individual’s pride, and definitely should not be taken to literally insane lengths as Bateman has gone with them.
I considered that the theme of delusion here might really be just a nightmare Bateman is having, which could be part of his inner-revolution before at least finding a way out. However, given the film’s pessimistic endnote, which includes a sign on a locked door in the background that reads “This Is Not An Exit,” I scrapped that idea. That sign is also the last line of the book, thus both writer and filmmaker seem to have intentionally left Patrick Bateman fated to limbo.
American Psycho IMDb Page