Bringing the 80s Back: The Tenuous Cult Status of American Psycho

Bringing the Eighties Back: The Tenuous Cult Status of American Psycho

Patrick Bateman is into murders and executioners mostly, but he is also into designer clothes, business cards, alcoholic drinks, facial masks, and classic horror movies. Ostensibly, he is a wealthy investment banker at Pierce & Pierce living in Manhattan in the late-1980s engaged to high-class fiancé Evelyn Williams (Reese Witherspoon). But he is also Patrick Bateman, a serial killer obsessed with killing his victims as he gives extemporaneous and amusing commentaries on his taste for Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and The News, and Whitney Houston.

American Psycho is one of those films it’s hard not to like, even if does contain one too many cute moments. Perhaps it is one of the best novel-to-film adaptations ever made – which is not saying much given the amount of bad adaptations. Director Mary Harron, a staunch feminist, uses Bateman’s dual role as a yuppie/psychopathic killer to parody 80s-style narcissism. Bateman continually – in self-deprecating voiceovers – talks about his needs even as the camera focuses on posters for Les Misérables. It’s a shame the filmmakers, at times, tie themselves too closely to the Bret Easton Ellis novel they are adapting.

On the one hand, American Psycho both satirizes but also pays serious homage to serial killers Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, and many others. But it’s a lover letter too, to a yuppie culture obsessed fashion, music, and celebrity that though with us still has changed dramatically. Making reservations isn’t worth killing anyone over as such status symbols have moved onto to more priceless items like Taylor Swift CDs. Bateman and his associates – Timothy Bryce (Justin Theroux), Luis Carruthers (Matt Ross) – use their business cards as if they were carrying swords. In addition to this, the film includes references to Ivana Trump, Cliff Huxtable, Reagan, the Wall Street Journal, and much else to establish the sense of the times.

Yet something rings false. Clearly, Christian Bale as Bateman in American Psycho does a masterful job, but the problem isn’t the performance as much as the execution. Even as Bateman starts his murder spree by bashing Paul Allen (Jared Leto) in the head with the axe, the violence escalates without any logic or reason. He stabs Courtney Rawlinson (Samantha Mathis). He chases prostitute Christy (Cara Seymour) with a chainsaw (while naked!). The scenes are less terrifying than humorous. Unfortunately, one has to see the film several times to catch the morbid humor being deployed. Over and over again he tells us: “I have to return some video tapes.”

American Psycho: Bateman Aims His Nail Gun

This is funny, but such jokes begin to wear thin. Some moments do continue to stand out.

At one hilarious point, an ATM, orders him to feed it “a stray cat.” One wishes, however, the film took more chances and having gone so far into the realm of fantasy didn’t just go all the way in exploring just how crazy Bateman could be.

There’s a problem in the tonality of the film as, at times, Bateman sounds educated and intelligent. He corrects Craig McDermott (Josh Lucas), who is going on and on about a fellow associate and colleague as being a “Jew bastard.” “Jesus, McDermott, what does that have to do with anything?” But then he shouts to Christy to “get down on your knees so Sabrina can see your asshole.” Despite countenancing disparaging remarks about women, he spares his secretary Jean (Chloe Sevigny) as he has a large nail gun near her head, but he can’t seem to take the next step and do her in.

Beggars, models, and fellow yuppies are killed with impunity but Bateman insists that “we have to end apartheid. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger. … We have to encourage a return to traditional moral values. Most importantly, we have to promote general social concern and less materialism in young people.” Again, all this is very funny. Bateman weeps over “abusive political authority” and then goes off to kill someone else. By the end, one feels remarkably empty about the whole experience.

The ending is especially hard to sit through by providing one of those all-too-clever-for-its-own-good endings and seemingly negating the entire film. Did he kill Paul Allen? Is he just trying to escape his normal, dull existence as a young exec? This pulling the rug out from the audience isn’t enough to make one forget the good parts early in the film, but it feels gratuitous. Still, this is a classic and it is constantly worth revisiting. Yet now it feels like one is going back to see an empty, amusing spectacle.

Then again, no film that pays homage Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre can be all that bad.

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