I thought I’d give this onscreen adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel a rewatch after many years. It’s not a perfect movie, but I was surprised at how savagely funny this satire of the 80s consumerism and yuppie phenomenon really is, something that had completely gone over my head when I first watched it.
I’ve read Ellis’ original novel about the young wealthy investment banker who’s secretly a sociopathic killer almost 20 years ago, and I mostly remembered it as a rare book that made me feel physically ill with its gruesome descriptions of violence (I’m not good at conjuring mental images when I’m reading a book so it takes a lot to get to me). The violence in the film version is a lot more low-key and mostly implied rather than graphically portrayed, which, depending on who you ask, is either a positive thing or misses out on a crucial shocking aspect of the novel. I’m fine with the decision to cut down on the gore, since it allows the movie to concentrate on the satirical side more.
Christian Bale gives a brilliant and fearless performance as Patrick Bateman, a handsome and rich 27-year-old New York banker and a completely hollow human being with a black hole where his soul and personality should be. He’s engaged to the similarly perfect and glossy Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon before her America’s Sweetheart phase), who he shamelessly cheats on. His circle of “friends” and colleagues, including Justin Theroux who’s fantastic at playing an 80s corporate asshole, are just as superficial and misogynistic. They are in fact so identical that they have trouble remembering who is who at times. The only difference is that, in addition to obsession with appearances and surfaces, pretentious expensive restaurants, grooming products, designer clothes and sex, Bateman also has an insatiable appetite for murder. Most of his victims are women, but in truth he’s not terribly picky.
There’s an element of a thriller, with Willem Dafoe’s detective poking around after Bateman murders one of his colleagues, and Bateman’s bloodlust spiralling out of control near the end of the film. The latter transition is rather jarring and not entirely successful, though the ambiguous ending is intriguing and makes the viewer question how much of what they’ve just seen really happened.
To me though American Psycho is mostly memorable for skewering the trappings of the 80s corporate success, the beauty routines, obsession with nouvelle cuisine and expensive sheets and so on. There’s a particularly unforgettable scene in which Bateman and his colleagues show off their fancy and nearly identical business cards, making each other sweat with jealousy. The novel’s monologues about the musical merits of Huey Lewis and the News, Phil Collins and Whitney Houston are even more hilarious in the film. Bale may not be an actor who’s known for his comedic roles, but here he frequently shows his knack for dark comedy as well as intensity, such as the scene where Bateman merrily puts on a rain jacket before he chops up his colleague with an axe.
P.S. I wonder if this movie played any part at all when Christian Bale got cast in another iconic role as a young rich man leading a double life.