Chilling 'American Psycho' captures the cold, calculated world of a violent, Armani-clad narcissist
Director Mary Harron's(I Shot Andy Warhol) adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' controversial novel American Psycho is an often witheringly snide black comedy. Graced with a smart, pathos-laden meditation on male competition and the blood-drawing ferocity of a money-centered culture, along with screenwriter Guinevere Turner, Harron does a transformative voodoo on an often repugnant source. If there was critique beneath all of Ellis' shallow, brand-name nihilism and graphic rhapsodies on the bloody, baroque tortures of women, most critics and editors failed to miss it beneath Ellis' pruriently heavy-handed bloodletting.
The document of a wealthy Wall Streeter, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), surveying the world from inside his chicly minimalist apartment and a string of exclusive bars and restaurants, Ellis' American Psycho followed Bateman's plunge into an extreme form of misanthropy as he brutally and meticulously tortures and kills a succession of men and women.
But Harron has, thankfully, cleaned up the crime scene of Ellis' regrettable novel, sucking up a great proportion of the blood, better to convey the lifeless, bloodless despair of a pristinely coiffed but emotionally flat-line yuppie who hangs with a pack of fellow corporate sharks.
Harron's mise-en-scene has the frigid, vaguely otherworldly look of Prada advertisements. Ellis' excruciatingly drawn-out torture scenes (focused on the sexual torture of women, which got Ellis into so much trouble with, well, women) are replaced with a laboratory ambiance that mirrors Bateman's own hollow, echo-filled conscience.
Bateman and his fellow yuppies are meticulously groomed and germ-free, and the blue-yellow color range of Andrzej Sekula's cinematography endows flesh with a putty-toned flatness more molded than human. Surface dominates in Harron's finely calibrated Manhattan, where the measure of a man is the lettering and color of his business card and his ability to bag a good table at a top-notch restaurant. Conversation is so slick and slippery, it ricochets in dead air. Insults, gossip and reams of received information from news items and music reviews are volleyed back and forth between the characters, but the words and packaged "opinions" become as much of a mask as the Armani suit or Walkman Bateman uses to block out his fiancee's prattling. Harron cuts to the heart of the often vicious, bloody nature of social intercourse and status-jockeying, which can feel as primal and cruel as any real battle.
In this mano a mano world, it's the men, with their brand name obsession and bloodthirsty status wars, who are the peacocks, the minimalist dandies who tolerate female intrusion only as a means to one end ... sex. Harron offers a hilarious encapsulation of the ferociously narcissistic and obsessive Bateman mindset in an early scene where his voice-over account takes us through the multiple gels, masks, creams and lotions that arm the modern Master of the Universe for a day at the office. Harron lingers on an image of Bateman peeling off his morning mint face mask, and that image of a skin peeled off and discarded haunts the film, a visual summation of the disembodied circumstance of its protagonist, whose detachment from others - as well as himself - allows him to begin his murder spree. As the bodies stack up - a couple of hookers, a Sarah Lawrence alum, a fellow Wall Streeter - there are frequent doubts cast as to whether the events are real or only imagined or whether Bateman is even Bateman. Such confusion over identity seems Harron's effort to show a character so disembodied and rootless in his own skin, he truly isn't anyone but the Cerruti suit on his back and the Clinique mask on his skin.
Bale is exceptional in the lead, keeping a reserve of repugnant character traits (not limited to horrendous taste in music), including a grotesque narcissism that has him watching his own body in the mirror during sex, that prevents us from relishing his juicy, nihilistic skew on his corrupt world too fully.
In a cast of suitably carnivorous types, the only real false note is Reese Witherspoon as Bateman's fiancee, too chirpy, corn-fed and state university to pull off the required Seven Sisters deb sophistication. Every scene between Bale and the pitifully underage and out-of-place Witherspoon strains dramatic possibility.
At a certain point in American Psycho, after Bateman's bloodsport is well under way, Harron loses hold of the film, adding more and more murder scenes to the brew, which never further develop or complicate either Bateman or the plot. A seriously misjudged moment of slasher film, chainsaw lunacy threatens to completely dismantle Harron's previous cool, sinister precision. Fortunately, Bateman's soullessness and amoral solitude reassert themselves by the film's satisfyingly ambiguous, chilling end, but this rough patch of conventional thrills and chills shatters Harron's witty, intellectual approach and moves the film from its rarefied plane dangerously close to crowd-pleasing schlock.