By all appearances, Patrick Bateman (a pitch-perfect Christian Bale) is what women call a good catch: an attractive professional whose success and confidence indicate a keen intelligence, a gentleman with cultured manners who refuses to embrace the conventions of machismo or intolerance. They would be dead wrong.
Bateman is a monster, a preening narcissist (imagine Dorian Gray as a Calvin Klein underwear model) who seeks to control everything and everyone in his sphere, an amoral killer who thrives on the hunt.
What Patrick does – what he is – is utterly repugnant. Yet he’s also strangely appealing, a soulless golem who tries to understand the emotions and impulses (particularly empathy) that drive the actions of most humans. But Bateman has few examples of anything approaching love in his inner circle, the cutthroat, backbiting upper echelon of Wall Street during the greed-is-good 1980s.
What writer-director Mary Harron and screenwriter-actress Guinevere Turner (Go Fish) sees in the Bret Easton Ellis novel is a razor-sharp dissection of this culture, not a slasher film in designer duds. So this American Psycho employs a visual motif that’s as clean, cool and precise as the minimalist luxe of Patrick Bateman’s apartment. It’s all about surfaces and the worship-of-object culture.
Mary Harron is not afraid to show Bateman in extremes. During his elaborate grooming regimen, the camera caresses Bale’s body and transforms him into "the girl," that object of beauty in horror films who’s so preoccupied with herself that she doesn’t see the killer coming. But the killer is already inside.
Harron continually subverts expectations throughout American Psycho: allowing Bateman to torture his victims with detailed analyses of inane pop songs; turning a boardroom full of young vice presidents comparing business cards into a territorial pissing match; making the women in the film distinctive characters, while the men are so utterly interchangeable that they’re routinely mistaken for one another.
While unafraid to explore Bateman’s grisly crimes, Harron injects the film with ambiguity, leaving open the question of whether the murders are real or merely the manifestation of his frenzied imagination. But make no mistake, this is not a tale for the faint of heart: It’s satire with a vicious bite.
A smug Bateman tells a model in a nightclub that he works in "murders and executions," instead of mergers and acquisitions. Either way, he makes a killing.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.