Monday 1 April 2013

A to Z - American Psycho

April 1st marks the start of the A to Z blogging challenge. Bloggers are encouraged to spend 26 days discussing whatever they want, assuming the topic of the day matches that day's 'letter'. I was a bit stuck for what to discuss, until I decided to stick to what I know best - movies. So every day, I'm going to be discussing a film I enjoy beginning with that letter. It's not always going to be one of my favourite movies, just one I think people should see.

Now, with A, I had a few films I wanted to mention, like The Adjustment Bureau, but I decided American Psycho was a more obvious choice given my predilection for horror. I actually used American Psycho in the dissertation for my undergraduate degree, comparing and contrasting it with Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy. I have read the book, but in a lot of ways, I actually think the film is more successful. For one thing, it condenses the interminable lists that characterise the book, and it manages to balance that ambiguity around whether Patrick Bateman is a homicidal maniac - or he just thinks he is.

For those who've never seen it, American Psycho tells the story of Patrick Bateman, a 1980s yuppie who works on Wall Street by day, and hangs out in clubs and bars by night. As well as doing a lot of cocaine and spending his days at work doing the crossword, Patrick also stalks and kills people, seemingly at random. He dispatches one victim with an axe, another with a chainsaw. Most of his victims are women, but that doesn't stop him killing homeless people, colleagues, and even dogs. Put it this way, Patrick Bateman is not a nice man.

American Psycho was the first film in which I ever saw Christian Bale. I've since adopted the opinion that his career has been entirely downhill from that point, as he reprises the role in every film in which he appears, but that's a side issue. In American Psycho, he's perfectly cast. He strikes that fine balance between madness and apparent normality, all while fixating on the trivia of yuppie life. Bateman is a man obsessed by superficiality - business cards are subjected to intense scrutiny, and he finds life truths buried in the trivial pop songs of Whitney Houston. This is a yuppie for whom the clothes very much make the man. His narration doesn't introduce characters according to their personality - he talks about what they do, and how they look. Appearance is everything - which sums up our American Psycho, since his appearance of normality is his strongest disguise.

Yet Bateman is also an unreliable narrator. He kills people, only to have conversations with others who claim to have lately spent time with those same victims. It's never clear if Bateman has confused them with someone else, and killed the 'wrong' person, or if he didn't kill them at all. There are only two instances where outside parties appear to be aware of what's going on, and even then, the ambiguity remains. Strangely enough, even after he's made his confession and been absolved by the continued insistence that one of his victims is alive and well, you're almost glad that he's gotten away with it.

The book is a horrible, violent piece of work, while the film relegates the nastiest violence to passing comments, or the summary of crimes that Bateman leaves on his lawyer's answering machine. As a result, the inherent queasiness involved with American Psycho is translated into that ambiguity that allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions as to Bateman's guilt or innocence, making it an altogether more worrying viewing experience.


Tony Noland said...

This is one I've been meaning to see. Will add it to the Netflix queue now.

Bevimus said...

That is the most intelligent review I've ever read of that movie, which is one of Dave's favorites so it's perpetually on our Netflix queue. This'll be a fun month!

Laura Eno said...

Yay! You're doing the A to Z. :)

Laura Eno – A Shift in Dimensions

Katherine Hajer said...

That Youtube clip you included is the first time I've ever seen an actual clip from this film -- everything else has been stills. First thought was that around the time the film came out, I knew someone exactly like that -- the hair, the glasses, the obsession with suits, all of it. He always did creep me out.

This has got to be the most intelligent and interesting review I've ever read of this film (the others tend to hand-wring over the misogyny and violence). But now I'm wondering what you have to say about The Adjustment Bureau.

Chuck Allen said...

I have not seen this movie either, but now you have me wanting to see it. I'm glad you're doing A to Z on movies.

Icy Sedgwick said...

I think American Psycho is a much more intelligent movie than many people give it credit for, but Katherine, you're right, it does tend to provoke a lot of hand-wringing.

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