Killer movie

The film of Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial 1991 novel American Psycho took a long time to make it to the screen. At one point, Oliver Stone was set to direct — can you imagine the bombastic melodrama he would have made? — and Leonardo DiCaprio was due to star in it, commissioning a script rewrite. It would be interesting to know what that gilded playboy, who entirely lacks the subtlety to play the killer Patrick Bateman, wanted changed.
A more loveable psycho?

Fortunately for us all, DiCaprio went instead for the safer property of The Beach, and American Psycho was given back to director Mary Harron, who had made the brilliant I Shot Andy Warhol in 1996. And what a fine job she has done of it.

Harron co-scripted the movie with Guinevere Turner, who wrote, directed and starred in the 1994 lesbian drama Go Fish, and who has an ironic cameo in American Psycho, resisting (at first) the titular psycho’s request that she have sex with another woman while he watches. This is a very intelligent adaptation of Easton Ellis’s novel, putting just off-screen the sickeningly detailed descriptions of torture and murder and thus avoiding an upmarket gorefest that would have been little more than a slightly classier version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (one of Bateman’s favourite movies).

Harron and Turner have filleted out the novel’s heart, so to speak, and rearranged key episodes of a longish, repetitive novel into a narrative as lean and mean as its protagonist. One of the text’s running jokes is the way in which what people are wearing is obsessively listed; instead of giving us personal character traits, they are collections of brand-names. Without this cataloguing, the novel would probably have been 100 pages shorter, but it works to show how a hyper-consumerist society puts surface over substance and having above being. Harron and Turner omit most of this, but carefully place similar vignettes in the film to make the same point. Bateman’s description of his cosmetic regime — a exquisite distillation of the theme of how the pursuit of exterior perfection has replaced inner worth — is hilarious.

British actor Christian Bale (first seen at age 13 in The Empire of the Sun) plays Patrick Bateman, and does so with consummate delicacy and skill. In his mid-twenties, Bateman is what Tom Wolfe, in The Bonfire of the Vanities, called a “master of the universe”: he works on Wall Street, he works out constantly to achieve a supermodel body (nothing less will do), he angsts about getting into the best restaurants, but to his soulless eye other people are just tubs of blood awaiting the enactment of his gory fantasies.

He is ridiculously wealthy (he doesn’t need to work, but does so “Because I want to fit in”), and looks like the idealised boy next door, but has no emotions except greed and lust. “There is no real me,” he confides as he peels off his facepack. He worries about the sodium content of what he eats, but drinks heavily and hoovers cocaine. He eviscerates people for pleasure, and, moreover, loves the music of Chris de Burgh and Whitney Houston, but in a time and place where value is calculated only in monetary terms, he can get away with it.

The time in question is the Eighties, and the place Manhattan, but the milieu has not vanished, nor the empty values.

The United States is richer than ever, and more than ever concerned with surfaces and brand-names — and the globalised (which is to say, Americanised) rest of the world is following suit, or trying. American Psycho meticulously recreates its setting, but it has a relevance beyond its period. It also has the dark wit and cinematic panache to be near-timeless, a haunting portrait of the murderous skull beneath the carefully moisturised and depilated skin. In short, it’s a killer movie.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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