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American Psycho
by Ed Owens

"I'm not really hungry, I just want to have a reservation."

While the above line isn't spoken by the narrator, it is indicative of the prevailing attitude shared by most of the twenty-something males at the story's center, none of them embodying that principle more than Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street power broker with an insatiable appetite for bloodletting. The film, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, chronicles Bateman's adventures over the course of several weeks, but more than that, brutally satirizes American culture.

From the very beginning, the movie stakes its claim in a beautifully directed credit sequence that clearly and concisely establishes the film's premise. The tone set in the first minute or so is carried almost throughout (see my objections below) and even raised a notch as the movie continues. We learn about Bateman less through a cohesive narrative than through a series of vignettes to which we are (secretly) privy. There are so many negatives to Bateman's character - greedy, misogynistic, brutal, petty - that it is a wonder we are drawn to him at all.

Director Mary Harron follows Ellis' lead in not looking for reasons for Bateman's dementia (in fact, our current tendency to look for behavioral causes is nicely spoofed in an early scene), content instead to present Bateman as simply being. This makes Bateman's actions more disturbing because we can't explain them, can't justify them by pointing to an easily categorized social cause and effect - in Bateman's own words, "There is no catharsis."

Harron's adaptation is more of a distillation, keeping the essence of the novel while changing the details to reflect both the change in medium and the current climate. Images tell us as much (if not more) about the characters as the characters themselves - an early shot of Bateman and his fiancee in a cab puts Bateman behind a pane of frosted glass, leaving him out of focus while everyone else is sharply detailed. There are very few bad choices by Harron on display here, giving us instead a tightly directed and extremely well-crafted film.

Bale is also spot on. Based on the strength of his performance, it's hard to believe there was ever a time when he wasn't the number one choice (Leonardo Di Caprio had expressed an interest at one point...I shudder to think). His delivery and nuance are exacting of the character, more of a caricature really, but one that is perfectly suited for the material. And yet, he manages to give off the subtlest vulnerability beneath his smug and arrogant demeanor. Even difficult shifts in character, such as when Bateman agonizes over whether or not to kill a coworker, are deftly handled. In fact, it is Bale's performance that holds the film together through its difficult transition late in the third act.

As Bateman descends deeper and deeper into his psychosis, the movie becomes more and more fantastic. What Harron fails to do (with the exception of one truly inspired moment involving a cleaning woman) is maintain the tongue in cheek tone that has dominated the rest of the film. The loss of that tone is somewhat jarring, and keeps the movie from completely coalescing as it should have.

Buff-o-ramaThe bigger problem is how the film compares to the book. I make it a point never to compare versions across media, instead preferring to give each the benefit of the doubt. In this case, however, I found the comparison to be unavoidable. Much has been written of American Psycho's checkered production history, but the most damning blow is in the unwillingness of companies to allow their products to be associated with the project. Ellis' novel, which is unquestionably a satire, succeeds for the most part because of the unabashed name dropping and product placement which fills its pages, becoming as much a product of consumer culture as it is a satire of it. The film lacks that edge, having to fabricate most of its few brand-name plugs. The result is the removal of a crucial element.

Yet, even that loss seems somewhat small compared to the movie's ambitions, many of which it successfully achieves. American Psycho is certainly not for everyone, but it is definitely a finely crafted film worth viewing.


CineScene, 2000