The Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho, a dark, violent satire of the “me” culture of Ronald Reagan’s 1980s, is arguably the most controversial and polarizing novel of the nineties. That notoriety fueled sales, inspired debates over its misanthropic themes, and ultimately led to a big screen adaptation.
Christian Bale is razor sharp in American Psycho (2000) as blank corporate drone Patrick Bateman, vice president in charge of doing nothing at a mergers and acquisitions firm (or, as he calls it, “murders and assassinations”). He’s a preening tiger in designer suits whose speaking voice is part salesman, part self-help guru, and completely artificial, and his performance is magnificently self-conscious, a man who knows he’s just playing his part.
Carrying himself with the poised confidence of a male model he spends his days in a numbing world of status symbol one-upmanship and soul sapping small talk. He doesn’t really like his friends, despises his fiancée (Reese Witherspoon), and carries on an affair with a colleague’s fiancée (Samantha Mathis), a woman medicated to the point of becoming the walking dead.
Patrick’s facade cracks when he meets his match—the handsome, smooth, confident, and successful Paul Allen (Jared Leto), a man who plays the game even better than he does—and his tenuous grip on this reality starts to slip. He breaks out at night with smirking homicidal explosions accomplished with the meticulously fastidious care of a hopeless obsessive and he literally takes an ax to a nemesis while rhapsodizing over the genius of eighties pop music hitmaker Huey Lewis. Even an outrageous naked charge with a chainsaw is most notable for the impossibly polished and gleaming instrument of death.
Indie filmmaker Mary Harron, fresh off of the indie hit I Shot Andy Warhol, tackled the adaptation with co-screenwriter/co-star Guinevere Turner, overcoming many of the objections of Ellis’ novel by keeping most the extreme violence off-screen (sometimes just barely), suggesting Patrick Bateman’s reign of terror with splashes of blood and personal souvenirs. They blur the line between reality and fantasy in Patrick’s odyssey as they explore his empty life, the mix of self-obsession and self-loathing that drives him, and the misogyny and violence that erupts from his spiral.
Harron still battled the ratings board (ironically for depictions of sex rather than violence) but in her own words, she believed that she and Turner were “rescuing it from its own bad reputation.” Whether you agree with that assessment or not, Harron’s film is a darkly hilarious, cheerfully insidious hall of mirrors all pointed inward, slowly cracking as the portrait becomes increasingly grotesque and insane.
Willem Dafoe plays a private detective who spars with Patrick over his Huey Lewis obsession and Josh Lucas, Chloë Sevigny, and Guinevere Turner co-star.
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American Psycho [Blu-ray]
American Psycho [DVD]
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The Blu-ray and DVD special editions include two commentary tracks (one by director/co-writer Mary Harron, the other by actress/co-writer Guinevere Turner), five deleted scenes with optional commentary by Mary Harron, and three featurettes.