American Psycho Mary Harron
Published Apr 01, 2000I'm glad American Psycho finally made it to the screen, if only because this means that the years of speculation and controversy will finally come to an end. Bret Easton Ellis's novel was such a cause celebre, it had to be made into a movie at some point. Canadian Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) was the brave soul who stepped up to the plate, and she's made a very good adaptation of the book - not a breakthrough artistic success, but a very savvy and precise satire on the slick, soulless, affluent culture of the 80s.
Harron's biggest fight in getting this movie made was in the key casting choice of Brit Christian Bale in the role of high financier/recreational murderer Patrick Bateman. Bale is perfect for the role - he's tanned and muscular, and has a hard, angular face that he uses like a smarmy mask. His voice is oily and confident like an infomercial pitch-man, whether he's extolling the musical virtues of Huey Lewis and the News (the "Hip to be Square" scene is a show-stopper) or convincing a hooker to return to his apartment for another night of torture. Bale taps into the sick humour of Bateman's dual life.
Ellis's book was like an exorcism, or a ritualised execution of a particular low point in American culture and morality. Harron clearly shares the same attitude and intention but she's smart about what works on the big screen as opposed to print. Her scenes of violence don't have the protracted specificity of the book. She understands that the real point of the inclusion of the murders is that they are as morally blank as any of Bateman's other daily routines. Whether it's keeping his skin toned and moisturised, getting his sheets immaculately clean (they're stained with blood and gore), or being seen at the most exclusive restaurants, it's all part of the omnipotence of being rich and beautiful. His fixation on surfaces is evident just by looking at the walls of his apartment - stark white, interrupted only by some Robert Longo prints that he probably bought purely because he liked the cut of the suits the figures in them are wearing.
There are only a couple of aspects of American Psycho that I take issue with. Unfortunately, one of them is the use of Toronto locations to stand in for New York. The streets scenes don't have the necessary grandeur and sweep, while the restaurants look too cosy and even quaint, when they should be cold and elitist. Also - and here's an odd complaint - the casting of Reese Witherspoon and Chloe Sevigny (two of the best young actresses around) is at best a waste of talent. They add too much character and humanity to supporting roles that should have been filled by actresses who can disappear into anonymity within the movie. The businessmen (Jared Leto, Bill Sage and others) are more effective within this context because they all play their roles with the same interchangeable blandness. There's even a running joke about Bateman and his cohorts not being able to tell each other apart.
After all of the inflammatory controversy that was damning this movie before it was even made, it's gratifying to see that it found its way into the hands of someone who truly understands this material. Mary Harron knows what she's doing right from the opening credit sequence. Drops of blood fall against a white backdrop, and as the droplets turn into a stream, you realise it's not blood at all - it's raspberry coulis being artfully drizzled onto a dessert plate.