Friday, May 23, 2014

Classics Revisted: American Psycho (2000)

American Psycho (2000)
Directed by:  Mary Harron.
Written by: Mary Harron & Guinevere Turner based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis.
Starring: Christian Bale (Patrick Bateman), Justin Theroux (Timothy Bryce), Josh Lucas (Craig McDermott), Bill Sage (David Van Patten), Chloë Sevigny (Jean), Reese Witherspoon (Evelyn Williams), Samantha Mathis (Courtney Rawlinson), Matt Ross (Luis Carruthers), Jared Leto (Paul Allen), Willem Dafoe (Det. Donald Kimball), Cara Seymour (Christie), Guinevere Turner (Elizabeth), Stephen Bogaert (Harold Carnes), Monika Meier (Daisy), Reg E. Cathey (Al, the Derelict).

Sometimes, against all odds, the right movie gets made by the right people after going through multiple different directors, stars, etc. Such seems to be the case with Mary Harron’s American Psycho. At one point, apparently Oliver Stone and Leonardo DiCaprio were attached to direct and star – although they looked to humanize psychopath Patrick Bateman more than Brett Easton Ellis’ novel – which I don’t think would have worked, but who knows? But what would Stone have brought to the movie, seeing as how he already made Wall Street, about the 1980s culture of greed on Wall Street, and Natural Born Killers, about ultra-violent psychopaths? And perhaps had DiCaprio explored a Wall Street psycho earlier in his career, we wouldn’t have seen his career best (so far) work in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street last year. Apparently there was another version of the movie planned at one point – with David Cronenberg directing and he planned to have absolutely no violence in the movie whatsoever. If anyone could have pulled this off, Cronenberg could have. At the same time, perhaps had Cronenberg been able to do that movie, we wouldn’t have seen Cosmopolis, about a Wall Street tycoon, who is essentially an emotional vampire. I may be in the minority, who loved it, but Cosmopolis continues to be a film that grows in my mind, and I wouldn’t want to give that up.

Besides, what we ended up with in American Psycho is great anyway. Perhaps the smartest thing that was done was hiring Harron to direct and co-write the movie alongside Guinevere Turner, as the two women bring a different perspective to this world soaked in misogyny and violence against women than a male director would have. Bret Easton Ellis wasn’t pleased – he ridiculously thinks that cinema requires a “male gaze” – but who cares. The novel, as written, would be un-adaptable for many reasons – the extreme violence could never be done in a mainstream movie, nor could all the graphic depictions of sex. And when Bateman goes on for page after page about the meanings of pop songs, a movie audience would be bored to tears. What Harron and Turner do is strip the novel down to its essentials, and have made a cold, Kubrick-ian examination of Patrick Bateman – a pathetic shell of a man, who as he describes himself “I am simply not there”. And that, I think, is really what Easton Ellis doesn’t like about the movie – he wrote it, in part, about himself and the empty excess he wallowed in through the 1980s. He feels a strange sympathy for Bateman that Harron and Turner do not.

To Patrick Bateman everything in his life is a status symbol – something that he wants not because he really wants it – but because others will feel envy that he has it. The film’s opening scene, as Bateman and his equally vacuous friends engage in a game of one-upmanship by showing off their new business cards, obsessing over the smallest details (“That’s bone. And the lettering is something called Silian Rail”) of their cards (which all look the same to me) is chilling in its emptiness. Bateman’s first crisis in the film comes in this scene, when he sees Paul Allen’s card (“Look at that subtle off-white coloring. The tasteful thickness of it. Oh, my God. It even has a watermark.”). His brand new card is now useless – a status symbol that is now all but meaningless because someone else has something better.

It’s like this with everything in Bateman’s life. He walks us through his morning routine – showering, crunches, the different gels and creams he uses on his hair and face, the meticulously tailored suits he wears. His body is as much a status symbol as everything else he owns – which makes the running joke through the movie that everyone gets everyone else mixed up. Two people insult Bateman to his face, while thinking he is someone else entirely. The all work on Wall Street – presumably in “Mergers and Acquisitions” – but we never see them do any work. When we do see Bateman in the office, he’s usually listening to music, watching to TV, or lying on his couch. One of the last straws that eventually seals Paul Allen’s fate – Bateman will murder him with an ax while discussing Huey Lewis and the News – is that he got an account that everyone wanted? Why? Because it’s yet another status symbol – and after the business card, and Allen’s ability to get a table at the hottest restaurant in town, that laughs at Bateman when he tries to make a reservation – that’s three times Allen has upstaged Bateman – so he has to be eliminated – even if he doesn’t even realize who Bateman is when he’s talking to him.

Christian Bale gives what is still probably his best performance to date as Patrick Bateman. It’s an over the top performance to be sure, but how else could someone play this character? He is great when he dons his “mask of sanity” with the other brokers – even though there scenes together show them all to be horrible people, with Bateman no worse than the rest of them. They can do whatever they want, and because they are white, male and rich, no one will ever punish them for it. They view women as interchangeable objects – or as one person describes them “someone to satisfy all their sexual needs, without being too slutty about it”. Bateman is cheating on his fiancé, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) with her best friend Courtney (Samantha Mathis), which is okay because she’s cheating on him with one of his friends. These people are all interchangeable and don’t connect on any real level (no one seems to notice Courtney’s rather alarming drug problem). He’s perhaps even better when that mask of sanity slips, and he goes on his blood soaked rampages. At least then, Bateman is showing some recognizable human emotion, even if it is all ugliness. He believes the world sees him as powerful, confident and in control – but one of the best moments in the movie is when he hires two prostitutes, and starts giving them orders, and the pair exchange eye rolls with each other. He’s just another rich asshole – although at the time they don’t realize how big of an asshole he can be. They will though. The infamous sex scene in the movie – that had to be trimmed for release in America – is one of the most un-erotic in cinema history. Harron’s doesn’t really view this sex as pleasurable- he doesn’t eroticize their bodies – and the camera seems almost to be mocking Bateman as he points to it during the session.

As the movie progresses, Bateman becomes more and more unglued – as he goes further and further with his violence. The only time he shows any compassion at all is while on a date in his apartment with his assistant Jean (Chloe Sevigny), who he warns away because he knows if she stays there any longer he won’t be able to keep himself from killing her. The movie grows surreal in its final act – an ATM machine asks Bateman to feed it a cat, a police chase is partly derailed when a single shot from Bateman’s gun causes a police car to explode. A visit to Paul Allen’s, which when he left it last time was a bloody, grisly murder scene, is now spotless with a real estate agent telling Bateman to leave – and not to come back. This has led some to speculate as to whether everything we’ve seen is in his head or not. For his part, Easton Ellis says he doesn’t know if Bateman really killed anyone or not. Harron and Turner both think he did, and view the ambiguity of their movie as one of its failings. Personally, I don’t think it really matters if he did it or not – and everyone is entitled to their own opinion (regardless of what Harron and Turner think, there is enough evidence to support both theories – and once filmmakers are done with their film, it belongs to the audience, who can judge it as they see fit, regardless of their makers intentions). It’s chilling either way.

American Psycho is more than anything a portrait of a culture that views wealth and status above everything else. It is a poisonous look at the Reagan-80s, but one that remains relevant to this day (just like the fact that The Wolf of Wall Street takes place in the early 1990s doesn’t diminish its relevance in 2014). Bateman is a symptom of this culture. American Psycho is the perfect name for movie. I’m not sure another culture could produce a Patrick Bateman.

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