Disturbingly Satisfying: American Psycho (2000)

This is the book cover, not the movie poster...it's much creepier and a more accurate reflection of the story!
This is the book cover, not the movie poster…it’s much creepier and a more accurate reflection of the story!

Currently streaming on Netflix! Reminds me of: Fight Club, There Will Be Blood. 

A couple nights ago with temps in the negatives and a polar wind blowing outside, I found myself in a strange mood. Namely, I was willing to re-watch a movie I’ve often described with hatred: American Psycho.

The last time I watched it was 4 years ago as a freshman along with a group of my dorm mates. I’d seen it listed on some critic’s blog and decided it would be academically stimulating or something like that. My pick earned me the ire of my friends, and I was banned from selecting movies from then on. It also didn’t help that it was the first Christian Bale movie I’d watched, so I didn’t realize he was playing against type. In fact, American Psycho tempered my enjoyment of the Batman trilogy because I couldn’t get the character Patrick Bateman out of my head.

American Psycho focuses on a wealthy Manhattanite in the 1980s with a penchant for designer suits and silvery axes: Patrick Bateman. We are introduced to this physically beautiful but mentally twisted specimen while observing his meticulous morning routine, which involves 1,000 crunches, a calculatingly healthy breakfast, and some very expensive facial products. Already, it is clear that this individual suffers not only from extreme vanity, but also something more disturbing. He perceives himself as a machine, and his motions, though perfect, are lifeless–as is his permanently condescending expression.

Looking back, it’s strange to think that everyone from Johnny Depp to Brad Pitt to Leonardo DiCaprio was considered for the title role, because Christian Bale truly inhabits it. His affected, distant way of speaking perfectly captures the way upper-class citizens seek to distance themselves from others through diction, often without realizing it. Bateman’s sneering disdain for humans quickly becomes evident when, on the pretense of helping a homeless man, he decides to stab him to death instead:

“Hello. Pat Bateman. You want some uh, money? Some food? [reaches into wallet]. This what you need?”
“I’m hungry.”
“Yeah. Cold out too, isn’t it? [Kneels so that he is eye level with the homeless man]. Why don’t you get a job? If you’re so hungry, why don’t you get a job?
“I lost my job.”
“Why? You drinking? Is that why you lost it? Insider trading? [snickers] Just joking. Listen, what’s your name?”
“Al.”
“Hmm? Speak up, come on!”
“Al.”
“Get a goddamn job, Al! You’ve got a negative attitude! That’s what’s stopping you! You gotta get your act together. I’ll help you.”

It gets worse, and then, of course, Bateman eventually stabs the homeless guy after telling him he smells like shit. As disturbing as the above conversation may seem, it is, almost verbatim, the kind of “helpful” advice dispensed by sniveling “motivational” books and, moreover, fits neatly into the American pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mythology. It’s ironic, of course, that Bateman never acknowledges that his lavish lifestyle and high-paying, meaningless job exist because his father owns the company where he works.  Bateman had very little to do with creating his world, but he takes credit for it nevertheless.

It’s unsurprising, then, that someone with so little self-awareness would develop sociopathic tendencies. After the homeless man, Bateman’s next victim is his equally swarmy coworker, Paul Allen. Allen made the mistake of trying to outperform Bateman in the now-infamous business card competition. Many enjoy watching that scene because they find it hilarious–and rightly so. Yet there’s something more ominous going on here that often goes overlooked. The fixation on something as mundane as a business card in this uber-rich, high-profile world of yuppie Manhattanites demonstrates the overall pointlessness of the lives they lead.

[spoiler ahead]

American Psycho‘s truly wonderful twist comes right at the end. After leaving a tearful confession on his lawyer’s answering machine, Patrick Bateman nervously makes his way to a bar the following day. There, he encounters his lawyer in person and tries unsuccessfully to convince him that the message was real–that he did really murder Paul Allen.

The lawyer denies it, claiming he had dinner with Paul Allen in London just 10 days before.

At this point, two scenarios are possible: 1). Patrick Bateman suffered a psychotic break shortly before leaving a confession to imaginary murders that he wished he had–but ultimately didn’t–commit. Regardless, his “greed is good” lifestyle still stripped him of basic mental functionality and reduced him to a guilt-addled madman.

or, 2). The lawyer is lying, and Patrick Bateman is telling the truth. Patrick isn’t crazy–murderous, calculating, obsessive, yes. But mentally ill? Not any more so than anyone else with homicidal tendencies. He may commit murders, but at least he doesn’t hallucinate. This, to me, is ultimately the more terrifying option, and one that makes the most sense considering the last line of the movie: “This confession has meant nothing.” All of those who inhabit Patrick’s world are so devoid of humanity that none of them can or will recognize a slaughter taking place in front of their very eyes. A less elegant way of putting it would be to say that the rich don’t pay for their mistakes. But that would defeat the purpose of Bret Easton Ellis’s subtle yet brilliant metaphor for the madness of a society build on capitalism, individualism, and greed.

Overall grade: A-