WARNING: The following review contains spoilers.
Confessions of a Serial Killer
Much like Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel of the same name, writer-director Mary Harron’s film of American Psycho has received incredible pre-release buzz, and it is THE movie that everyone will be talking about after it opens. Ellis’s book was roundly panned when it was published (although Ellis has been stroking himself in print lately, talking about Harron’s film adaptation and the fact that his novel is finally being appreciated), and at first seems an unlikely choice for Harron and co-scriptwriter Guinevere Turner, two of the more liberal, lefty lesbian and/or feminist filmmakers currently working. Ellis is not the most gifted writer to be produced recently by American pop culture, although of the ‘80s brat pack authors, a group that includes Jay McInerney or Tama Janowitz, he has had the longest career (despite that fact that his novels are perennially critical flops), and the perils of turning his obsessive, superficial, slice-and-dice novel into a film were surely daunting. It was with much excitement and not just a little trepidation, then, that I went to see American Psycho, and much to my relief and pleasure, Harron and Turner’s film is amazing. Visually stunning, clever, brilliantly acted and directed, and socially and politically charged, American Psycho is a ballsy piece of filmmaking that at every turn defies expectations.
We all know the story, or at least anyone with a pulse and the most glancing familiarity with American popular culture of the past ten years knows the story and this was Harron’s first challenge in making American Psycho: how to tell a story that has become notorious and common cultural knowledge. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale in a virtuoso performance) is a typical 80s yuppie power broker who, in his downtime, is a particularly gruesome and vicious serial killer with a penchant for outrageous combinations of sex and hyperviolence. And indeed, murder is his true vocation he’s only nominally an investment banker, going to the office and listening to his Walkman or watching tv, while plotting his next killing. When not plying this trade, and not at work (not working) in “mergers and acquisitions,” Bateman spends his time obsessing over his daily beauty regimen, and running with a gang of neatly identical fellow young Wall Street types. The film uses these young pseudo-turks to comment on the superficialities of Fortune 500 business cultures, and U.S. culture in general, through their belief in the vital importance of the trappings of wealth, and as is evidenced in their continual preoccupations with business cards and restaurant reservations.
Throughout the film Bateman and his pals agonize over who can get reservations at the momentarily hippest restaurants in the city (and duly envy and despise those who get reservations where they cannot). In a moment of almost hysterical self-exposure that comes near the end of the film, Bateman’s crony Craig McDermott (Josh Lucas) anxiously asks, “Do we have a reservation? I’m not really hungry, I’d just like to have a reservation. Throughout, American Psycho, while seemingly about the 80s, demonstrates the continuing persistence of greed and image consciousness through the ‘90s and into the twenty-first century one need only think of the all the hoo-ha over the recent New York opening of the uber-hip restaurant Pastis (in the now cool meat-packing district) to find this see-and-be-seen mentality at work today. In the ‘80s, as today, reputation and status are all about image, about the simulacral fantasies of power and prestige, whether garnered through Cerrutti suits, Oliver Peoples glasses, and restaurant reservations (today, at Pastis or Nobu), or through the “perfect” business card.
At one point, before a meeting for which this band of elite bad boys has gathered, what amounts to their whipping out of their dicks ensues as they ooh and aah over each other’s new cards. Bateman and company elaborate the minute details of their business cards (the card stock, color, font type, and layout) as we watch close-ups of each card, flawlessly lit and framed. It’s clear enough that this little icon is the key to their identity (both how they perceive it and how it is perceived by others). Indeed, the cards embody for them a sense of potency: their very masculinity is at stake. During this game of one-upsmanship, Bateman is bested by his rival Paul Owen (Jared Leto): his new card isn’t nearly as nice as Owen’s, which only serves to fuel his murderous rage and feelings of insignificance.
This competition over business cards as they represent status, or more precisely, size makes clear the intense homoerotics that underlie the desire for power and reputation in this all-male enclave. Jealousy of those who appear to have influence is transformed into an obsession over the traditional symbols of masculine privilege (thus suits, cards, and reservations). The sexual dimension of these desires for another man’s possessions, or to see and to possess what another man has, cause a great deal of anxiety in this exclusive world, anxieties which are partially defused through overt homophobia. This is directly attested to late in the film when fey, bow-tied, squishy prep-school type boy Luis Carruthers (Matt Ross) whose very name evokes decaying, effeminate European nobility mistakes Bateman’s initial attempt to murder him in a public restroom as a sexual come-on. What Bateman reads as Carruthers’s misrecognition of aggression for sexual advance is, rather, Carruthers’s open acknowledgment of the sexual dynamics and desires that underlie the group’s power-playing. This mis/recognition challenges Bateman’s self-assured sense of his own masculinity and sexuality (which is also called into question by his self body-worship and beauty routine), and he quickly flees both Luis and restroom in a moment of obvious homosexual panic.
On a very simplistic level, all these obsessions with status markers constitute a critique of the greed and capitalist frenzies of Reaganite America in the 1980s. Further, nearly identical in dress and manner, Bateman, et. al., stand for the homogenizing tendencies and conformist demands of America broadly, and U.S. executive/elite class business culture in particular. In one of Bateman’s excurses on the blandest of 80s’ pop music which precedes each of his slaughters, he holds forth on Huey Lewis and the News and their hit “It’s Hip to be Square” (a song which will not be on the soundtrack cd, someone having determined that the movie is too violent to be hip), extolling its banalities and describing the comfort he finds in its compliances.
The more complicated question raised by American Psycho‘s return to the ‘80s is, how does this vision/version of capitalist greed relate to the dot-com economy of today which is producing more millionaires than ever before in U.S. history? And are the routinized conformism and homogeneity of 1980s Wall Street any different from the flexible, self-reflexive, self-deconstructing business practices of transnational capitalism today? More to the point, is the (mandated) model of the itinerant, Fast Company, weekend-warrior, extreme/eco-traveling corporate executive or manager of today any different, in “nature” or form, from the Cerrutti-clad, Robert Palmer clones of American Psycho‘s 80s New York?
The second major difficulty Harron and Turner faced in making the movie was what to do with the violence, which in the book is stunningly graphic. Their answer to this, which both have pointed out in interviews, was to leave the vast majority of the violence off screen. And so, the closest we come to actually witnessing one of Bateman’s murders is when he is stabbing a prostitute in bed while both he and she are covered by a bed sheet, and we only see the spread of blood as it saturates the fabric. Throughout American Psycho, we are rarely witness to explicit violent acts; instead, we are shown their aftermath and clean up (which are, of course, disturbing in their own right). The filmmakers’ other strategy to mitigate the effects of the violence in the film is to make it into black comedy. In one scene, which is set up previously by a few minutes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre playing on Bateman’s television, we watch as he, naked except for a pair of white training shoes, and splattered in blood, chases a negligee-clad prostitute through the halls and stairwell of a seemingly empty New York City apartment building, all the while clutching his wailing chainsaw. While this may sound a bit grisly, this scene, as it is presented, is nothing short of hilarious in its over-the-top B-grade horror movie aesthetics. Indeed, perversely and pointedly, American Psycho is repeatedly funny.
American Psycho‘s violence and its critical reception raise a number of important questions about gender, subject matter, violence and “appropriateness.” In 1991, Ellis’s book was a perfect target and example for feminist critiques of patriarchy. NOW famously led boycotts and organized protests over the book and its publication, asserting it glorified misogyny and violence against women. Interestingly, these feminist criticisms have been entirely absent from the reception and critical press around the film. If any sort of gendered commentary has been lodged in relation to Harron and Turner’s American Psycho, it has been that the movie is actually “anti-male.”
The fact that while both book and film deal with the same subject matter, yet are received and interpreted so radically differently, raises questions of who (stereotypically) can speak for whom, or who can speak about what, and what is at stake in that speaking. While significantly different in some ways, Harron and Turner’s American Psycho is, nonetheless, strikingly similar to Ellis’s novel in many more ways. So, is it because Harron is a woman, and specifically a liberal-left, feminist-leaning woman that the film is free from criticism over questions of misogyny and violence against women (as it appears her female-ness did indeed have a direct influence on her even getting the project)? Could Harron and Turner only produce a film that is “anti-male,” just as Ellis could only produce a misogynistic novel? There are a number of implicit assumptions about the relations between gender and subject matter, between author and social or political allegiance, and art as the production of gendered subjects which are elided in the non-critical, knee-jerk reactionism which attacked the book as misogynist and that delimit the film as “anti-male.” I am not saying that book and film are inherently either “anti-male” or “misogynist,” for I don’t believe they are, separately or taken together, collapsible to either. Rather, I am a bit confounded by vastly different public and critical gendered responses motivated by book versus movie. (This is also why I quite consciously refer to the film in the opening paragraph as “ballsy.” What does it mean to say that Harron and Turner’s film is “ballsy”? Could they even make a “ballsy” film? Does the film have the balls that its male characters clearly do not? And so on.)
As if all of the above were not enough for one movie to take on, American Psycho also makes a compelling commentary on and critique of talk-show America as confessional culture. The rise in popularity of Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, and Ricki Lake, and the increasing belief that public confession is the answer to our individual problems is precisely what intervenes between the publication of Ellis’s novel and Harron and Turner’s movie, and this is, in the end, one of the film’s primary concerns. Throughout, we watch as Patrick Bateman spins out of control, as he is increasingly unable to compartmentalize his Wall Street and serial killer lives, and gives himself over to a perpetual orgy of sex and violence. As his lives collide, his paranoid fantasies of getting caught increase in intensity, and build to a pitch until he finally, after a night of particularly high body-count, calls his lawyer in a panic. Convinced the cops are hot on his tail, Bateman leaves a full confessional on his answering machine. Of course, this call is motivated not only by his fear of the police, but by his feeling that he has no control over his life, that he is “sick,” and he accordingly mimics the pop psychology language that would explain his various psycho- and socio-pathologies.
After a number of last reel plot twists and turns (one of which takes the film’s teeth out by suggesting that all of Bateman’s murderous acts might only be in his fantasy life), it appears that he can get away with multiple murders. His acts have no repercussion and his confession has failed. Or perhaps it has done entirely what public confession is supposed to do, which is, nothing. We know from the beginning that Patrick Bateman is a hollow man, or perhaps better, a mirror, which loyally reflects dominant cultural values and expectations, at least on the surface. As we watch his daily deep cleansing and bathing ritual early in the film, he tells his bathroom mirror/us, “There is no real me” and “I simply am not there.” In Patrick Bateman, we have superficiality raised to the level of transcendent art form. In this regard, then, in Bateman as pure cultural production, is it in any way surprising that his confession is motivated by the common perception that this is exactly what he is supposed to do? Hey, he’s a serial killer. Serial killers always get caught (at least according to common myths), and before they do, they increasingly slip up, and lose control of their activities, and eventually confess all their crimes in order to claim the glory.
But there is no such satisfaction for Patrick Bateman. After his confession fails and there is no response to his various violent acts, Bateman muses to himself, in an entirely detached manner, that in confession, “there is no catharsis,” and that he has “gained no deeper knowledge” of himself. Like everything else in his life, his breakdown has merely and entirely been an act, a pose, the performance of what he believes is expected of him. And this is, ultimately, what is so troubling and exceptional about American Psycho. While nominally about the 1980s, Harron and Turner’s film functions more specifically as critique of contemporary U.S. culture. In the confessions of Patrick Bateman, the film points out that public confession as individual act and as mode of cultural life is entirely self-indulgent, and in which confession itself becomes both punishment and, more importantly, reward for transgression. And in Patrick Bateman, American Psycho offers the pure reflective surface as the predominant American manner and practice of subjectivity.