Director Mary Harron’s film American Psycho (2000) was a sensation when it was first released. It was a financial success, received mostly positive reviews, and gained notoriety for how it depicted the violent sensibility of author Bret Easton Ellis’s infamous novel. But it was not just popular then, and continues to remain popular now, for how it portrayed brutality. Rather, American Psycho continues to be a memorable film because of how Harron and her collaborators created a satirical portrait of toxic masculinity and its cinematic take on the subjective mental state of its protagonist.
American Psycho takes place in New York City in the late 1980s. It follows Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a 27-year-old investment banker who spends most of his time eating in fancy restaurants and socializing with other young men who work on Wall Street. Bateman prizes the trappings of his ultra-wealthy lifestyle and, above all else, conformity. But he also has homicidal desires and murders many people. Or does he?
A lot of what makes this film enjoyable is its sense of humor. Director Harron co-wrote it with Guinevere Turner (who also has a small role as Bateman’s friend Elizabeth) and they excel at getting great comedic value out of Bateman’s world. They satirize everything from foodie culture to the moral emptiness of the ultra-wealthy. But they get a lot of comedic mileage out of the male anxiety which courses through Bateman’s life like blood through a body. He goes to absurd (and now famous) lengths to maintain his body, and seems more interested in admiring himself during a sex scene than in his partners. Bateman and his friends talk about women in such an atrocious manner that it becomes absurd, as when he high-fives a guy after they agree that there are no women with good personalities. One of the most iconic scenes is of men comparing business cards like they’re trophies, with Bateman becoming increasingly distressed as he realizes that he does not have the best card. Sequences like that are a reminder that this film is at its best when it is digging into its protagonist’s ideas of toxic masculinity and how they propel him forwards on his strange odyssey.
Much of that odyssey’s power comes from how Harron shoots most of the film from Bateman’s unreliable point-of-view. For example, an early scene features him telling a female bartender that he wants to kill her. Harron films Bateman’s reflection in a mirror as he speaks, which adds an illusory quality to the shot. It gets across the sense of menace that Bateman wishes to convey, but also implies that he may just be imagining what he is saying. The fact that the bartender doesn’t acknowledge what he just said is a part of the film’s pattern of people ignoring the more alarming side of Bateman’s behavior, but it’s also a clue that Bateman may be imagining a lot of what he experiences.
Harron further conveys that this film is told from Bateman’s POV in other, more subtle ways as well. There are multiple instances of Bateman listening to pop songs that sound non-diegetic. But when he takes off his headphones, the volume of the songs becomes quieter and we realize that they are diegetic to the scene. Smaller moments such as these keep the film filtered through Bateman’s consciousness and remind you that most of the film is taking place from a subjective viewpoint as opposed to an objective one.
American Psycho becomes even more fascinating in the moments where an objective reality seems to intrude on Bateman’s narrative. Multiple characters describe the unflappable Bateman as “a dork,” and near the end of the film we see Bateman behave in a much different manner with his friends. He’s hyper, uncomfortable, and annoying as he tries to joke around with his fellow investment bankers. This, the film seems to suggest, is the real Bateman. Not a terrifying murderer, but a nerdy and nervous man with murderous fantasies who will never achieve his goal of fitting into society. That moment — and the final shot of Bateman realizing that his life means nothing — feels like a more fitting punishment for him than any other.
22 years after its release, American Psycho has lost none of its power. Its sense of humor is as sharp as ever, and Harron’s subjective filmmaking continues to captivate. Both of those qualities serve to make this adaptation exceptional, especially because of how they allow Harron and her collaborators to go beneath its story’s glittering surface to honestly explore the mind of its complex and pitiful protagonist. In the end, this film is the opposite of Bateman’s “confession:” self-aware, intelligent, and full of meaning.
American Psycho will be screened at IU Cinema on December 1 at 7pm.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.