American Psycho
Updated review from July 2009 / Original review from June 2000 here / Click Here to Comment
Director: Mary Harron. Cast: Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, ChloŽ Sevigny, Cara Seymour, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, Jared Leto, Justin Theroux, Bill Sage, Josh Lucas, Matt Ross, Guinevere Turner, Stephen Bogaert. Screenplay: Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner (based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis).


Photo © 2000 Lions Gate Films
As early as Little Women and The Portrait of a Lady, maybe even earlier, Christian Bale's face has always been a kind of parodistic exemplar of the word "chiseled." As Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Bale famously mapped that adjective onto his whole body. If his sharp brow, ever-enviable cheekbones, and suddenly statuary muscles seem preternaturally planed and hewn, via a regimen of exercise and cosmetics to which an early sequence memorably introduces us, there is also an aspect of the severe, maybe even the fascistic about this Wall Street pirate's pursuit of his inner and outer Superman. Chiseling isn't just a metaphorical or an autoerotic activity for Patrick, who also likes to slice and carve people up, although the Guignol assaults and starkly photographed red-on-white bloodbaths in Mary Harron's movie were never its most interesting element. Either through the overfamiliar iconicity of the American serial-killer film or through the twinge of desperation in the movie's nonetheless laudable attempt to pull an elegant exercise in style out of an essentially lurid tale, the scenes and plotlines that lean most heavily on Patrick's murders have less punch than the vivid acting and sleek design suggests that they should. Ditto the boilerplate facetiousness of the clubland scenes, the marooned thread with Samantha Mathis as a drugged and pathetic mistress, and those glimpses of spoiled rich kids dining out at swanky restaurants. None of American Psycho is boring or empty; even the restaurant sequences are worth it when they yield plummy lines like, "I'm not really hungry, but I'd like to have a reservation somewhere." But, as I wrote after my first-run screening of the movie, it sometimes feels as though director Mary Harron and her co-writer Guinevere Turner, for all their ingenuity at transporting Bret Easton Ellis' narrative and prose style into bold, unexpected, tonally idiosyncratic directions, aren't connecting to any emotional claims or thematic coherence within the slightly dubious material.

For Bale's part, American Psycho was his To Die For, not a major hit but a galvanic statement of his arrival, ambition, and potential. As with Nicole Kidman's Suzanne Stone, however, Bale's Patrick is a colorful, strong, compellingly realized figure, but the actor's calculated approach to stylization feels a bit too mechanical—you're watching his ideas about the character more than a fully achieved person, even by the hyperbolic and flagrantly conceptual standards of the overall piece. Bale gives great brow-furrow when one of his workmates confounds him with a superior specimen of business card or a disappointing reaction to one of Patrick's grotesque little anecdotes. The sheer arrogance and terrifying impersonality of his voice are as imposing as the hyper-toned body, but the line-readings sometimes possess more swagger and creepy panache than nuance or contextual specificity. Here too, then, the performance yields superlative facets and postures without quite adding up to any thematic or psychological sense. By the end, as Patrick careens from one rampage to another, running from a police pursuit that he may be imagining, Bale lets himself run amok with wild gestures and high-strung phone calls to his secretary Jean. His overstated meltdown makes his embodiment of disaffected hedonism through the bulk of the film seem comparably superficial, and the performance is memorable more as a series of potent effects than of crystallized meaning. Ironically, despite Bale's virtuosic star turn and the film's obvious fascination with him, Sevigny's direct and restrained playing of the shoudler-padded secretary, pining unrealistically for Patrick's attention, emerges as the much more affecting and consistent turn. This gal's myopic, naïve desire for an indifferent boss of barely concealed cruelty says as much about the social and psychological perversities coursing through American Psycho's New York, sometimes in places you don't expect to detect them, as does the expensively dressed and carefully plucked lycanthrope at the center of the film. Bale makes a dazzling impression; Sevigny makes sense.

American Psycho's duel between impressions and ideas is never quite resolved, but if the movie sometimes feels as though key scenes are missing, the film for this very reason takes intriguing shape as a series of uneasy juxtapositions and attenuated, sometimes seasick encounters with itself: the parody butting up against the ideological critique, the exaggerated blended with the peripheral and the subdued, the comedy waking up in bed with the terror. Blood against money, rivalry against mimicry, strangled desire against bullish disgust. Patrick's most exuberant moment of sexual abandon plays out in an all-white bedroom with two female escorts, a blonde and a redhead; he wakes up naked between them later that night, opens a bureau drawer full of Jeremy Irons' surgical implements in Dead Ringers, and in the next shot, the prostitutes stamp out the door, scathed, creepily mussed, and crying in anger as well as in pain. The swerve from the carnal to the carnivorous is swift and confident, but it isn't just a tonal turn, and it isn't clichéd on either end. Harron extends the sexual encounter, maintaining an uncanny register between the luminous and athletic sex, its chauvinistic and voyeuristic power dynamics, and the coldly synthetic pop music of Phil Collins; by contrast, but just as eccentrically, she condenses whatever terrible violence Patrick eventually performs on these women to one sharp moment of furious exit, striking in its succinctness and in its refusal to condense whatever it is the women are feeling into a single dimension. Not every scene or thread in American Psycho works, but when they do, which is impressively often, they work in an exciting range of ways: dilation, compression, horror, mockery, imagery, editing, candor, implication. The social idiom combined with the color palette make it a memorably arch screed against whiteness, with Kubrick-white paint poured over the scenes of grisly crimes, and with characters—white-collared, of course—obsessing over the hair's breadth of difference between bone, ivory, and eggshell, without a single other family of pigments ever crossing their minds or their visual points of view.

American Psycho looks and feels like the kind of movie that has something grand to pronounce about its protagonist, its genre, its era, but it sometimes winds up feeling confused or blurry in these attempts. Patrick is the first to admit that "no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling," though one wishes it weren't so easy to agree with him. All the same, sensory effect is just as vital to good filmmaking as intellectual cogency. American Psycho connects strongly in the moment, and has proven memorable over time, for the vivid impressions it makes in tone as well as look, its potent blends of sound and image, its unusual if erratic points of entry into potentially stock characters and situtations, and the exciting charges generated from the movie's leaps, sometimes within single cuts, from one atmosphere or genre or idea to another. The movie's unusual movements, fragments, and aspirations feel like a victory for popular art, even if it's hard to calculate the sum or the value to which these elements add up. B


Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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