There's a little American Psycho in us all.
I know, I know. You're not a serial killer. Hey, neither am I! (Although isn't that exactly what a serial killer would… never mind.) I'm also not a psychopath, rapist, cannibal, or -- perish the thought -- a yuppie. And yet, part of this film's impact comes from an uncomfortable feeling of recognition. Whether you acknowledge it or not, there's something familiar about this particular monster. Why? It's right there in the title. He's not just any old psycho: he's an American! He’s all of the worst, most barbaric impulses that underpin American life, made literal and manifest. He's not me. He's not you. But he is us. I hasten to add: I'm not suggesting we all have a secret desire to kill, maim, or torture. The murders in American Psycho, whether they even happen at all, are not the point. They're satirical extrapolations. They’re exaggerations: of shallowness and greed, conformity and isolation, power structures and economic violence. Beneath that moisturized, exfoliated mask of humanity, lies a creature of our collective id. Behind those dead eyes, we find ourselves looking back.
In this 2000 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' novel, Christian Bale plays Patrick Batman-- er, Bateman. Astride the pinnacle of the 1980’s Wall Street world, Bateman is a capitalist king. His biggest problems involve dinner reservations and business cards. His highest priority is keeping up appearances: the right suit, the right apartment, the right opinions on politics and music. Even behavior. His practiced speech patterns: delivered with exactly the right pace, pitch, and tone. His studied physicality. But underneath it all, as Bateman narrates after detailing his extensive skincare routine: "I am simply not there." It’s not exactly true. There's something beneath the surface, all right: Rage. White-hot, seething. His affectations of normalcy boil with barely-disguised disdain. Any challenge to his status-based self-image raises fury. Even as he embodies the archetype of American success, he thrashes against the cage of conformity. And he kills.
Bateman's murders seem, at first, to be outlets for his frustrations. His fiancé wants his help planning their wedding, so he stalks and kills a random woman on the street. (You know, as one does.) His co-worker, Paul Allen, has nicer business cards than his, so he kills a homeless man and a dog. Pretty standard psychopathic serial killer stuff so far. Things escalate when Paul Allen mistakes Bateman for another co-worker. He lures Allen to his apartment. In a frenzy of conformity, Bateman spews socially-acceptable opinions about music with Jim Carrey-esque manic energy. He blasts 'It's Hip to Be Square' as he murders Allen with an axe. The scene is gratuitous, violent, and hilarious. (When I first saw this film years ago, it took me two viewings to realize how damned funny it is.) From this point onward, Bateman spirals out of control, and the bodies start piling up. His methods of killing become more and more over-the-top and implausible. It's like he's ticking off a list of slasher movie tropes. The murders are ludicrous. Silly. And not the point. The point is Bateman's ravenous, violent appetite. In killing, he is devouring. Consuming. A predator, a wolf of Wall Street who is no longer sated by the empty calories of wealth, status and excess. He's purging his own humanity with each slaughter, getting closer and closer to a darkly satirical portrait of American capitalist values followed to their logical extreme.
Many have spilled ink on how our culture of materialism creates isolation. It's as true today as it ever was. The signifiers of status have changed, yes. Replace "business cards" with "TikTok followers." Instead of Huey Lewis & the News, think of a Michael Bay movie. Substitute any of the self-care sermons you'll find right now in your Instagram Stories for Bateman's morning routine. Of course, any culture needs some level of conformity. It's how we manage to co-operate in numbers far larger than our monkey brains can conceive. But when a culture places a premium on materialistic values, conformity can become isolating. You wear the right clothes, say the right things, act the right way, and society rewards you. But where does that leave your individuality? Your humanity? Not for nothing, does Bateman assert that various popular musical artists’ work improved as it gained mainstream appeal. Not for nothing, are Bateman and his co-workers, so often mistaken for each other in this film. The same suit, the same haircut, the same behaviors, the same values. They're interchangeable. But Bateman's world is a reflection of our own. His isolation, if extreme, mirrors ours. If you think of his murders in symbolic terms, and not as literal killings, the impulses fueling them start to feel a lot more familiar, too. He's cornered, caged.
Patrick Bateman is a manifestation of the greed, materialism, and appetites that course through American culture. But he's also something else, something more powerful still. He's a totem of the inherent violence that flows through gender and economic power structures. He asserts his male identity through sexualized violence against women, and one of his lowest moments comes when an attempted murder is mistaken for a homosexual overture. (See if you can spot the psychological subtext!) He asserts his economic power constantly. "Do you know what a [expletive] loser you are?" he asks the homeless man, as he stabs him to death. The darkest impulses of the human psyche are at the root of the power structures these episodes embody. Violence comes in many forms, but it doesn't take an axe-murder to be barbaric. Ask Harvey Weinstein. Or Martin Shkreli. Or the Black Americans being disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as I write this. You can’t ask Eric Garner anymore.
Living in a society means that none of us stand apart from these unseen forces of violence. A society is just people. Us. Society's a total sum, and we are all the parts. The baked-in violence is a product of this aggregate. When Patrick Bateman devours wealth, status, conformity, and pop culture, we are doing the devouring. When Patrick Bateman rapes, tortures, and murders, he is the sum of our parts. When his extreme actions seem to leave no mark on the inexorable systems and structures he inhabits, we are the ones looking the other way.
There's a little Patrick Bateman in us all. He's an aggregate monster of our society, hiding in plain sight. From his perch at the height of capitalist power, he seems to be untouchable, immune to consequences. The America this film satirizes is still America today. Don't believe me? Answer me this: Who's the notable New York celebrity Patrick idolizes and keeps looking out for wherever he goes? And where's that guy today?
Yeah. We are the American Psycho.
(Sometimes) a theatrical director/actor/producer and writer, and (mostly) a bartender and New Beaconite, often found in semi-aimless wander. Edward is pleased and honored to contribute to the most excellent Story Screen.