A lot’s already been said about American Psycho. It was Christian Bale’s breakout role, it’s based on an incendiary satire by Bret Easton Ellis, it bashes Yuppie culture, materialism, Wall Street, etc. It’s a favorite of most college aged males (in my experience), and it is definitely very good.
I don’t think enough is said about Mary Harron.
Don’t you want to know what I do?
American Psycho was adapted for the screen and directed by a woman.
This may come as a shock when you consider the source material. Bret Easton Ellis’s book came out in 1991 and it was immediately accused of any number of despicable things, namely senseless violence and a glaring misogyny. If the satire present in Ellis’s language wasn’t apparent enough in the novel, it’s brazenly apparent in the film. Harron skewers American exceptionalism and materialism with the “affectless” tone of Bale’s psychopathic Patrick Bateman (an irony that perhaps initial critics of the book didn’t pick up on when they bashed it for having no feeling). It’s really a perfect set up: what better way to critique the “spoiled-brat” attitudes of the rich and elite than to write about them from not only the point-of-view, but the scope of emotion, of a sociopath? It would be limited, and hollow. And that, would be scary.
I don’t find American Psycho to be a “scary” movie. It’s certainly horror – art-horror, again – but it’s not trying to operate as a genre film. It’s definitely an editorial piece of filmmaking if there ever was one. When it came out, a number of critics found it too “one-note” for a feature-length film. That the violence bored them. The kitsch grew old fast. There’s not a sympathetic character to be found. They got it – Americans were behaving without genuine feeling, with regard only for money and keeping up appearances, trying to “fit in.” Just like good old-fashioned psychopaths, mirroring everyone else around them, trying to be human.
But Mary Harron did something else, too. She focused an enormous amount of attention on the women. Of course, the women aren’t much less (or in some cases, any less) shallow than the men. But, where the men of American Psycho are all exterior – suits, ties, business cards – there are attempts made to give the women a thought of an interior self.
Elizabeth, Bateman’s ex, to me, is the most one-dimensional and akin to the other men. She’s the only one wearing a pant-suit. She is brazen, and carries herself in a manner very similar to Patrick’s male coworkers. She doesn’t have a lot of “interior” to share. She’s taken care of pretty quickly.
Evelyn, Patrick’s fiance, is my vote for most obnoxious. She dresses like that’s all that matters. She would like to get married, but it appears to be for the name and the event, not love. But when she is dumped by a psychologically crumbling Bateman, she “makes a scene.” She might be faking, or glamorizing, but there’s something human there. After all, we haven’t seen anyone else cry.
Then there’s Courtney. We know in her doped-up state she has mentioned wanting children – one point for depth. There is an implication that she is suicidal – that if she doesn’t see Patrick by Easter, he should “have a good one.” Post sexual encounter, the lithium dependent Court wants to ask Patrick a question. It feels incredibly important. He does everything in his power (a look, a vacant “Yes, Courtney?”) to make sure she doesn’t. She says “Nothing,” and he leaves. The camera lingers on her (my FAVORITE shot of the film), and she is broken. She may not be an effective human, but she is one – there’s something more under her skin. Probably not for much longer.
Kristie the Hooker (Yes, that’s a terrible label, but that’s how this film sees her, so let’s just call it like it is, shall we?). Kristie can’t help but put herself in bad situations for money – so the film isn’t forgiving her sins, either. However, she has the most common sense of anyone in Patrick’s presence, and that’s to GTFO (Get The Fuck Out, for those not up on today’s acronyms). Of course, when she does, well, that doesn’t work for her. Because if you have something Bateman doesn’t (like a sense of self-preservation), he’s going to take care of that for you.
But what about Jean? Jean is the most sympathetic of the bunch. She just wants to go on a date. She just wants to be noticed. She doesn’t even know what she wants from her life yet. She’s so sweet. Jean’s main flaw is her naivety – she sees evidence of her boss’s assholish-ness in the office every single day, and she does nothing. In fact, she plays to it. She’s attracted to it. She starts wearing a skirt at his request. She is repentant at becoming “involved” with an unavailable man, but she still wonders if he wants her to leave. But she does feel something more than the others. She searches his desk. And she does look pretty terrified by the look of that day planner. She just… doesn’t do anything about it. Or, the film doesn’t give her the time to. But there’s a person there, a hint at an interior being – that’s the important part.
**There is a whole other leaf to turn over here when considering the closeted Luis Cruthers. This movie is now dated in its perception of the LGBT community, so it may not be the most P.C. way to handle your only homosexual character, but the film seems to view him more in line with the other women, in that he is the only one of Patrick’s male coworkers who seems to have genuine feeling. His presentation of his new business card feels less competitive than the others, and more like a sense of pride. And of course, there’s the bathroom scene, which is basically the only situation to send Patrick running. There’s definitely a whole paper here. Tell me what you think.**
So, do I think this film is feminist? Probably not. Do I think it’s using its source material in a different way than intended? Definitely. Ellis doesn’t seem to be a huge fan of American Psycho, and I’m sure that’s for the usual “authorial intention” sort of reasons (see Stephen King and his drama with Kubrick over The Shining). But I can’t help but think it may be because of Harron’s choice to refocus a lot of the plot on the treatment of these women, sacrificing other things and other themes to look at something important to her authorial intention.
And of course, it means something, to have a woman directing the misogyny. Where David Cronenberg, Martin Scorsese, or (God help us), Oliver Stone might have done something far more in line with what Ellis had originally intended (or not – everyone has their own agenda in art, and good adaptation is a lesson in sacrifice and thematics), Mary Harron’s unique point-of-view as a woman leaves a mark on this film that, for me, elevates it to a higher level.
Bateman chasing Kristie through Paul Allen’s apartment building with a chainsaw. Double points for its mirroring of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous Vertigo stairwell sequence – only where John Ferguson was running up the stairs to try to save the girl, Patrick Bateman is aiming a power tool at her hoping to kill her.
Other Things to Notice:
I was looking for a way to wheedle in the most interesting part of the narrative into this analysis, and failed, so I’ll drop it here. No one SEES Patrick Bateman (kind of like no one sees May). They see someone else, or think they see someone else, or worse, think they keep seeing Paul Allen in London. His work goes unnoticed – and what could be worse for a twenty-something moving up in the world than to be invisible for your hard work?
If You Like It, Watch:
Psycho: Bateman mentions Ed Gein (NOT the maitre-d at Canal Bar), and Psycho is infamously based on the Wisconsin serial killer and his taxidermy fetish. Also, every good movie about psychopaths after it is somehow influenced by Hitchcock’s classic. No reason not to recommend it, because it’s great.
Peeping Tom: Michael Powell directed this creepy stalker film (along with other brilliant work like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus), releasing it the same year as Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s similar, and very, very different. It’s a personal favorite, and very scary, I think. The expressions of women dying on camera, accompanied by the sound of reeling film is TO DIE FOR.
The Psychopath Test: You can’t watch this. But you can read it. If you’re interested in the psychology of serial killers, psychopaths, or sociopaths, you’ll find this book fascinating. If you want to worry that you, too, may be sociopathic in some way, this will do it for anyone. Enjoy