Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel American Psycho saw its initial theatrical release fifteen years ago today, and was immediately divisive among critics based upon its superficial veneer of misogynistic violence. However, like the novel upon which Harron’s film is based, novelist and eventual screenwriter Ellis is more concerned with the corrosive effects of capitalism on the human soul. The materialism and consumer culture fostered by his Wall Street protagonist, and semi-autobiographical doppelganger, Patrick Bateman is an insidious force in the propagation of the very same misogynistic violence that the novel and subsequent film adaptation were accused of propagating unambiguously. Much of the reason why American Psycho is still so relevant today comes in its unflinching portraiture of Wall Street, American capitalism the true monster in an economic climate subsequently proven corruptible and accordingly bankrupt, metaphorically speaking as well as in point of fact.
Christian Bale’s performance as Ellis’ stand-in in Harron’s film is perhaps the first place to start when examining what is without a doubt one of the great film’s of the twenty-first century, and possibly one of the greatest films of all time. Bale’s false-sincerity is so entirely ensconced within the shell of consumerism that any interiority is “simply not there,” as Bateman himself proclaims in the film’s script. Thusly, when Bateman begins to go on any one of the film’s numerous scenes and sequences of homicidal carnage, rape, and mayhem, it becomes difficult to associate the carnage depicted onscreen with the perpetrator. Bottom line, each and every transgression of gross immorality is an act seemingly without incentive, Bale’s cipher-like visage and persona incapable of premeditation, the crimes depicted on screen left without an individual culprit.
This very same ambiguity regarding the true source of the film’s homicidal violence thus becomes the film’s key source of black comedy. American Psycho is equal parts an indictment of the socio-economic forces of perverse corruption at work upon the film’s titular maniac as it is a perverse celebration of those aforementioned forces’ inherent materialism. Bateman’s actions within the film thus become indicative of an entire community of misogynistic nihilists adversely sympathetic to Bateman’s plight, and therefore adversely capable of apathetic murder in kind. Within an economic climate dictated solely on such frivolous totems and class signifiers as the font, content, and make of a professional business card, the violence that often steals the show in Harron’s magnum opus is at times all encompassing in terms of visual focus, despite its thematic attention on a much broader swath of corporatized culpability that renders the film’s horror show theatrics intentionally sterile and humorous.
What’s more, the pervasive influence of Harron’s American Psycho can still be felt today. Both in terms of the film’s continuing subversive cache within the cult-classic subgenre of underappreciated films, in addition to being the direct forebear of Martin Scorsese’s wildly successful sex and drug romp The Wolf of Wall Street, American Psycho’s satire is still as wickedly sharp as ever. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Patrick Bateman’s infamous closing salvo in which he definitively declares his “confession has meant nothing” takes on an even darker resonance, Scorsese’s cinematic successor taking the route of straight forward comedy and farce, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort the fool to Bale’s mad king. Where Bateman was crippled by the lingering morality and ethics of a democracy on the brink of spiritual collapse, Belfort occupies an anarchic playground of loose morals and questionable business policies made into a religion all its own, Bateman a veritable messiah heralding the fraudulences of Wall Street’s new heir apparent.
Which brings the entire discussion back around to Ellis’ original novel and Harron’s cinematic adaptation. In the book, Ellis is equally possessed and troubled by the excesses attributable to Wall Street, specifically within and without the Yuppie culture of the 1980’s, his novel a quasi post-apocalypse of unhindered greed and power thoroughly American. Nearly a full decade later, Harron’s American Psycho is equally troubled looking back on an era of unbridled hedonism and lust that had resulted in prurience and a largely amoral socio-economic culture, the wanton abandon of Ellis’ fictive Wall Street echoed in the real life criminality of one Jordan Belfort, subsisting unseen and under the radar, public arrest and prosecution escorting him out in front of the public eye a mere few years before the release of Harron’s film. In American Psycho, all of Ellis’ personal fears and insecurities had come true and would continue to reverberate outside of the book and the film for years to come, the stock market crash of 2008 just one of the many ways in which Patrick Bateman’s debauchery had a hand in predicting and shaping the cultural climate of America in the twenty-first century.
And yet, Patrick Bateman still remains a temporally non-existent entity of the socio-cultural zeitgeist, thus serving to retain American Psycho’s ever-contemporaneous hold on the American consciousness. As Bale laments towards the beginning of the film whilst undergoing a facial peel, literally removing layers of artifice and an illusion of the self:
“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.”
For all of Ellis’ bluster and minutely described terror, and in despite of Harron’s ability to capture the insanity on screen, Bateman’s actions are tied up in an essence entirely imaginary. American Psycho’s flights of horrible fantasy prove as flimsy and insubstantial as the most coveted of business cards, mere placeholders for something never entirely substantial, though personally felt, for better or for worse. Patrick Bateman is a mere shadow of the imagination conjured up by our own guilt and seen out of the corner of our eye, his influence malevolently convivial, the charm of late capitalism still a terror in a world persistently consumed with consumption itself, despite the fine warning presented in America Psycho fifteen years ago, and counting.