Director: Mary Harron
Cast: Christian Bale, Willem Defoe, Chloe Sevigny, Jared Leto, Justin Theroux, Samantha Mattis, Reese Witherspoon, Cara Seymour
Plot: Patrick Bateman (Bale) is a high-flying Wall Street investment banker by day, deranged serial killer by night.
As 2018 makes a real push to discover female film-makers in order to bring some equality to the gender divide in the director circuit, perhaps one great example of female directors who were snubbed in their early days is American Psycho. Mary Harron was praised for handling a tricky novel and bringing it into the halls of cult cinema with this cracking piece of 80s cinema. However, afterwards there is little on her filmography to suggest that Hollywood helped her land a decent follow-up production. This is a crying shame, because it would have been wonderful to see what Harron could have cooked up five years down the line.
There are two ways to make a film like American Psycho. On one hand, you could dive into the serial killer side of things, creating a Hitchcockian horror, perhaps borrowing from the atmospheric style of John Carpenter. The material is there with Christian Bale’s deranged investment banker being devoid of empathy, killing people he doesn’t like, people he deems unimportant (the homeless, prostitutes), and even people with better business cards than him. However, Mary Harron goes for the other end of the spectrum and somehow turns this gory serial killer tale into one of the funniest comedies of the 80s. For most of the film, we are away from the killer aspect of the movie and simply revelling in the absurdity of Wall Street. It says a lot about the unlikability of Harron’s Wall Street elite that when Bale starts killing them off, you don’t feel the slightest shred of regret. Harron fought to cast Bale in the role, as the producers pushed for the likes of DiCaprio and Norton, a decision which turned out to be American Psycho’s winning factor. Bateman takes up the majority of the screen-time (in fact, frustratingly, despite the cast being filled with A-Listers, none of the other characters make too big a ripple in the narrative), so the actor filling the character’s shoes had to be able to deliver a winning blow. Bale’s performance is like nothing we’ve seen before. Bale breaks the rulebook with Bateman and turns this cold-hearted killer into – well, a bit of a dork. Strutting around his victims, moments before murder, Bale delivers pop culture references with the delivery of an awful game show host. He dances like a buffoon. And he gets obsessive about minor details. It gives Bale the chance to ham up every line, taking him from unknown actor to blockbuster star overnight. It is a well-deserved promotion in the hall of fame. All it needed was for Harron to write up some strong set-pieces to become the glue of the film. Strangely, Harron shows restraint on the more violent sections of the novel, keeping most of the more gruesome moments off-screen. However, somehow, the events are just as chilling and stomach-churning as if they were shown. Sometimes what happened doesn’t quite click straight away. Bale finishes up with two prostitutes and reaches for a coat-hanger. Cut to the girls terrified being herded out of his apartment. As you realise what has just transpired, your skin slowly starts to crawl. But this is all part of the masterfully created piece that Harron has devised.
There are a few reasons American Psycho is firmly stuck in cult viewing, rather than the realms of critically acclaimed. While the cinematography and editing are superb, there are two major flaws which hold back American Psycho from being truly great cinema. The first is that, in striking this aloof tone of Wall Street morons, Harron’s script is a film without a hero. This isn’t a case of a charismatic killer wiping out nasty bankers. Nor is it a case of Willem Defoe’s detective catching this madman. Harron views the events from afar and, while this techniques gives American Psycho some of its more memorable moments, it means that it is a difficult film to connect with. Patrick Bateman is just as much of a douchebag as the men he surrounds himself with. He orders his employees around in the same way he bosses about his evening prostitutes, cheats on his fiancé without a shadow of a doubt and generally views every other character as a waste of space. While Bale pulls the character back with a few moments where he is so nasty, he is compelling, he has his work cut out for him. One scene sees him shoot an old lady. Another sees him kick a dog to death. He is hardly a character you want to see make it out of the end of the film alive. You end up striving to find hope in the supporting cast, but they are either absent (Willem Defoe, Justin Theroux), or just as horrible. Witherspoon’s fiancé should be a victim, but is too ignorant and annoying to garner sympathy. Drug-adled Samantha Mathis puts herself into the firing line. The only saving grace of a character is Chloe Sevigny, but she hardly drives the story onwards. This lack of lead hero makes us squirm at the events of the movie, but we never feel an emotional connection with the violence, which arguably makes it as superficial as the Wall Street way of life. Perhaps that is the point. The second flaw isn’t really Harron’s fault, as it is the novel’s ambiguous choice of ending. Some might class it as a sucker punch of a twist, others might feel that the entire film simply negates itself. American Psycho is a highly fun film, but it doesn’t quite sink its claws in as much as you secretly want it to.
Final Verdict: Harron and Bale make American Psycho a lot better than it could have been, turning a violent novel into a strange, alluring piece of cult cinema.