Director: Mary Harron
Starring: Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, Cara Seymour, Reese Witherspoon
Runtime: 102 minutes
Here we have another “meta-commentary” film, this time on all forms of media, and corporate society itself. This is one of the few horror films directed by a woman. Based on a novel by Brett Easton Ellis, it is a disturbing film for many people, any larger social meaning aside, because of its psychosexual violence, as well as the self-conscious shallowness and narcissism of the main character, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale).
POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOLLOW
Set in 1980s Wall Street, Bateman is a corporate executive, but we don’t know what he actually does; there a number of scenes in his office, in which he listens to his headphones, watches TV, and talks on the phone. He hangs out with other ambiguously positioned male executives, who are as equally shallow and narcissistic. One of the greatest scenes in the film in fact does not involve either sex or violence, but a business card competition between these alpha males, who apparently have gone from penis size comparisons or arm wrestling, to battling over the slickness of their corporate representation. Although the scene is meant to be funny, the actors don’t go so over the top to be farce, and it only reinforces the sad reality that, perhaps it is an exaggeration, but not much of one.
One interesting aspect of this film is that while it obviously has a lot of disturbing imagery and action, there is not as much gore or outright violence as I thought after having seen it for the first time. It took repeated viewings, and some reading up on it, to realize more was implied than was actually shown. Many of the killings happen off-screen, and we see the results of the violence rather than the actual cutting or wounding (reaction shots of the victim, blood spraying, bodies or body parts, etc). There’s also Bateman’s interior monologue, which I think is unusual for a horror movie, especially coming from the “killer.”
I put killer in quotation marks because there is some confusion over whether Bateman actually commits the atrocities enacted over the course of the film or not. At first, his violence seems totally believable, if unsettling. His first victim is a homeless man he promises to help, but then starts to spout Reagan-era conservative clichés at him, culminating in multiple stabbings. It’s a disconcerting scene, but we can easily believe he could get away with this kind of thing. Then he moves on to prostitutes and other women he lures to his apartment, and one of the other male executives who aroused his jealousy. Each of these murders gets progressively more surreal, with Bateman going from spouting political clichés to quoting or playing various media sources—restaurant reviews, Genesis and Whitney Houston, and horror movies, and each murder a more visually outlandish spectacle (in one scene, he chases a prostitute with a chainsaw through the hallway of his apartment building while he’s naked and covered in blood). And then, the ending degenerates into an eruption of chaos as he shoots random people, blows up police cars, and confesses to his lawyer on his answering machine (one of the great monologues of the movie), that he “killed a lot of people,” which he goes on to describe in (often hilarious) detail. The way Bale delivers the lines, and his facial expressions, coupled with the gruesome descriptions, are just somehow so morbidly delightful. But just as his sanity appears to be completely gone at this point, the last few minutes of the film—which many have a problem with—make it hard to know whether he’s crazy enough to have done everything, or just crazy enough to imagine he’s done everything. Either way, I think that Harron wanted that ambiguity–some claim that the ridiculousness of the last ten minutes or so eliminates this. But while clearly we can’t trust everything we’ve seen, I still think he’s shown to be disturbed enough that he could have committed some of the crimes, while imagined others. In any case, the point is that Bateman is both a victim of the vicious and vapid society he lives in, as well as an agent of that viciousness and vapidity. The true “American Psycho” here is America itself.