not in our stars, but in ourselves
I’ve alluded to my utter inability to stomach most horror movies. It’s a failing on my part, as a would-be film buff, because horror is a fascinating genre to read about and to write about and to think about and so on. Brilliant film scholars like Carol Cleveland and Linda Williams, among many others, have written at length about all the ways there’s much more than meets the eye in even the slashiest of slasher flicks. It would be great if I could suck it up and sit through The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, just as easily as I could sit through The Philadelphia Story, but alas. I am a wimp.
With all that being said, however, I love American Psycho (2000). It’s funny. It’s mean. It’s a searing satire of the ‘80s in particular, but of anyone and anything that’s all signifier and no signified. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis (a fellow alum of Bennington College – safe to say that he’s done a much better job with his degree than I’m doing with mine). Now, I have not read the book, because I’m terribly naughty, but I understand that it’s all very unclear throughout as to what’s real and what’s imagined. Ellis was apparently reluctant to go ahead with the movie because he thought a movie would necessitate answers – answers he didn’t think his work should have to provide – but I think that director/co-screenwriter Mary Harron (the other screenwriter being Guinevere Turner) created something that, if it’s not better than the book, is a damn fine film on its own merits.
The narrator and, I suppose, protagonist is Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale). He’s a 27-year-old vice president of Mergers & Acquisitions at Pierce & Pierce, an investment banking firm. He is meticulous to the point of narcissism with regards to his personal appearance, putting himself through a rigorous facial, fitness, and dressing ritual each morning. He tells us, “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.” After feeling himself to be humiliated at work, when his frenemy Paul Allen (Jared Leto) shows off his superior business card, he stabs and stomps to death a homeless man. The violence quickly escalates from there, with Patrick slaughtering people he knows well, and total strangers – all while maintaining his carefully crafted yuppie façade. There are axes, nail guns, chainsaws, coathangers, and plain old knives – anything Patrick has on hand. Like many serial killers, he has his signature: he often lulls his victims into a sense of boredom and confusion by launching into a well-rehearsed monograph on the virtues of his favorite musicians: Huey Lewis and the News, Genesis, Whitney Houston.
It is often surprisingly funny. But don’t worry – there’s plenty of gore to be had, albeit without many (perhaps without any) shots of weapons actually cutting into flesh. There is blood, however. Liters and liters of blood.
There is also a good amount of insight – not merely into Patrick Bateman, who is of course fascinating, thanks to Ellis entirely. Harron and Turner preserved many of Patrick’s speeches from the novel in the film, and it is from these – more than from his actions, which truly seem to be abstractions with no grounding in reality – that we come to find out what little we do about him. Equally fascinating – to me, if not to anyone else – is the character of “Christie” (Cara Seymour). She is a prostitute whom Patrick hires twice. He tells her he will address her only as Christie, and she will respond only to Christie. As I’ve said, I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say for sure whether this is the case; but judging by some of Ellis’s unsavory remarks about women, and the flatness of the other women in American Psycho (or perhaps sketchiness is the better word: Patrick is fully painted and colored in, while most of the other women seem to be quick line drawins), I would imagine that it’s Harron’s idea to make Christie the only person in the whole sordid affair who’s fully aware of what’s going on. We don’t often get reaction shots from others in American Psycho. We usually stay very close to Patrick. But we get lots of reactions (silent, eyes darting, taking in everything instantly) from Christie. It doesn’t take her long to realize that Patrick is a genuine freak. It doesn’t take much for her to smell something rotten through his yuppie exterior. But she is a working girl, quite possibly down on her luck, and he’s rich. We see her weigh these conflicting forces, and we see that she sees this is all very, very bad. She’s awake in a world of sleepwalkers – and I think she’s my favorite part of the film.
Other than Bale, of course. He based his characterization on Tom Cruise’s “aggressive friendliness” with nothing behind the eyes, and if that isn’t the perfect description not only of Cruise, but of the ‘80s overall, I don’t know what is. You may as well know that Bale is a top favorite of mine, legendary temper or none, and the way he utterly transforms himself for each role is incredibly impressive. It’s not just some Method thing: Bateman is a man obsessed, so Bale trained like a man obsessed – often alone, apparently. It’s not a quick fix, like gaining fat for a role. It’s a sign of dedication and, yes, obsession on the part of the actor. I admire that – when it works, anyway. And it works for him, and it works for American Psycho.