Released in 2000, Mary Harron’s American Psycho introduced itself as a vibrant reimagining of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel by the same name. The prerelease of the film at the Sundance Film Festival proved controversial; while some viewed the piece as a flat and hackneyed horror, other reviewers saw that the piece had created a new level of depth within the overdone horror genre. However, upon the general release, the film managed to attract the positive attention of major publications—the New York Times described Psycho as “a dazzling period satire”—and as a result the film attained commercial success in theaters.
The plot centers around a 27-year-old Patrick Bateman, played by Christian Bale, who serves as a juxtaposition composed of upwardly-mobile corporate investor and blood-flinging serial killer. By day, Bateman works at the prestigious Pierce and Pierce trading firm on Wall Street, but by night he spends his time pursuing the interests of young people who have simply too much money for their own good. The scenes of the night life are portrayed as a patchwork of drug abuse, womanizing, affairs, and careful placement of potential indicators of Bateman’s homicidal tendencies. Upon leaving his friends, however, Bateman devolves into a bloodthirsty killer and removes his frustration on unsuspecting women and homeless men.
The narration of the piece is provided in voiceovers from Bateman himself, in which he details his careful thought process behind staging his murders. With decided self-awareness, Bateman takes great care to preserve his image amidst his unfettered desire to kill; the protagonist of the film carries his bodies with a stiff upper lip and a Gaultier overnight bag. Bateman’s sense of introspection serves as one of the most dynamic plot devices in the movie; he demonstrates a complete self-awareness of the atrocities that he is attempting to commit, but also an understanding of his inability to compromise with his carnal desires.
On the production side, the movie proves itself to be artful through its attention to cinematography and well-thought-out imagery. Between the shots of Bateman’s skin care routine and cardio workout, Harron manages to sell the visage of normalcy that carries the protagonist through his daily life. Conversely, the director opts for shaky, halfhearted camera work that serves as a nod to the movie’s horror roots upon Bateman’s devolution into a serial killer. The movie’s use of juxtaposition plays on the two-fold personhood of Bateman, and Harron’s work is a smart and introspective.
However, it was Bale’s incarnation of Bateman that ultimately made the movie a rousing success; Bale manages to fill his character with dead eyes and forced smiles in a way that screams that Bateman is doing his best to maintain a façade of normalcy. Bale shakes or sweats on command, and his conviction serves in a deep-seeded connection to the character. The New York Times described Bale’s performance as “alternately funny, blood-curdling and pathetic” in it’s devotion to the sociopath’s emotional rollercoaster.
American Psycho has proven itself to be a smart, original, and powerful contribution to the slasher genre; the piece carries an enormous weight of satire on it’s shoulders, despite having the simple value of shock to make it worth seeing. Rather than lend itself to the cheap tricks of being a horror film, the movie manages to produce itself with cinematic value.