American Psycho

American Psycho

A surreal thriller with the heart of a comedy.

“American Psycho” is one of the more unsettling films about impotence, male sexuality, violence, the oppressive superficiality of 1980s culture, and weird, vain executives obsessed with business cards and the integrity of their pores. That shotgun list of thematic topics only scratches the surface of what this film is “really” about. This is because the “plot” consists of a string of outrageous murders which or may not actually take place and which is littered with character’s whose personalities and motivations are buried under thick layers of social construction.  If pressed, I’d probably read the whole thing as a bizarre escapist fantasy of a seemingly powerful white male whose personality and virility is rendered inert by being trapped in a dreary, anonymous life which is devoid of any agency or obstacles, but with a film as ambiguous as this, most any reading is fair game.

Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a white, male investment banker in New York City that is fixated on his own appearance and at least has extremely violent impulses, whether or not he acts on them. Of that much in the film, I think we can be reasonably certain. Beyond that, we are forced to try and distinguish between a version of events which is the product of Bateman’s extreme and dark fantasies or a frightening reality in which Bateman has the privilege of committing a grizzly series of murders without consequence, or some combination of these two. There is evidence to support any of these interpretations, so the better question is, doe it matter which version of events we go with?

I’m not sure it does. Taken literally, Bateman is a sadistic serial killer who offs a ludicrous number of people, including co-workers, hookers, friends, and even some cops. Whether out of white collar solidarity, ignorance, or mass anxiety about their own mental health, Bateman is never forced to answer for his crimes. Willem DeFoe plays a detective investigating missing executive Paul Allen (Jared Leto) that should easily have been able to at least implicate Bateman in the murder, but instead seems more interested in feeding Bateman alibis. Bateman even confesses all his crimes to his lawyer, who passes off Bateman’s confession as a joke and insists none of the murders happened. Try as he might, no one is willing to acknowledge Bateman’s actions, which constructively is a failure to acknowledge Bateman’s agency altogether.

Treating Bateman as a thoroughly unreliable and indeed insane narrator brings us to more or less the same place. In this version, Bateman is so ineffectual and inert that he doesn’t have the gumption to actually hurt anybody, so he slips into Macabre daydreams in which he can enact his sadistic desires. This explains why nobody is all that bothered by a string of bodies at the end, because they don’t exist. Either way, nothing Bateman does “matters.” Not even in his fantasies.

So what then are we to make of this unresolvable ambiguity and Bateman’s extreme violence, “real” or imagined? Perhaps it is about interpretation. Bateman, like us, is wrestling with the ambiguity, and is no more successful at resolving it. His response is admittedly more aggressive than ours, but insofar as he attempts, or believes he attempts to make his actions correspond to “reality,” (or from our perspective, the narrative,) he can’t. Nothing he does corresponds to anything. It all reflects back to Bateman as an empty form. He has no identity (unless you count the generic, stolen lines of conversation that Bateman offers up as an “identity.”) In fact, his appearance is so like his colleagues that the only expressive outlet they have is virtually identical business cards. Combine this with an equally empty existence devoid of meaning or consequence amidst a dreary culture of false White Collar drones, and “American Psycho” is a sort-of postmodern satire of America.

Alright, I’ll admit it. Most of that last paragraph was aped badly from a conversation I had with one of my good friends, who is a P.I.T. (or “Professor-In-Training” if you aren’t into made-up acronyms for made-up words.) Even if the idea of a “postmodern satire” sounds pretentious or incoherent, the emphasis in deconstructing this film should exploring why the plot is ambiguous, rather than hypothesizing the ambiguity away. As for the experience of watching this film, major credit to Christian Bale for brilliantly toeing the line between dark comedy and pure sadism. “American Psycho” probably wouldn’t work with any other actor.

4/5

  1. #1 by Ben Kirbach on 24/03/2014 - 1:18 am

    I’ll come out as the P.I.T., an accurate acronym insofar as I can describe grad school as being “the pits.” It should come as no surprise, then, that I agree that we should explore “why the plot is ambiguous” rather than try to explain the ambiguity away. I am not familiar with scholarship surrounding this film, so I’ll use the internet as my litmus test. The film’s IMDb message board is replete with topics such as “Confusing” and “I hate ‘that was all imagination’ movies.” However, in the well-written (by comparison) FAQ section, I find the question, “Did the murders really happen, or did Bateman just imagine it all?” Here, director Mary Harron is quoted (in reference to the more hallucinatory sequence leading up to Bateman’s telephoned confession), “I should have left it more open ended. It makes it look like it was all in his head, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s not.” The FAQ entry also cites novelist Bret Easton Ellis, who claims that “if none of the murders actually happened, the entire point of the novel would be rendered moot.”

    I will admit that I have always found “the murders actually happen” interpretation to be more interesting. As IMDb also claims, “Ellis has stated that the novel was intended to satirize the shallow, impersonal mindset of yuppie America in the late 1980s, and part of this critique is that even when a cold blooded serial killer confesses, no one cares, no one listens and no one believes.” So there’s that. But of course, while authorial intent can helpful, we should not take it as the end-all, be-all of discussion. The film IS ambiguous, and whether the director thinks of this as a failure of artistic expression or not, we have a responsibility to deal with the text on its own terms. Anyone who claims definitively that Bateman really kills people, or not, should be viewed with suspicion. That sounds facetious (and to a certain extent, it is), but in all sincerity– good interpretations require good evidence. “American Psycho” seems to subvert any attempt to cull good evidence. Clearly some events are not “real” within the film’s world (e.g. the ATM that instructs Bateman to feed it a stray cat), but which events are real and which are not becomes almost impossible to sort out. Just as Bateman himself is deranged and unable to recover “reality,” so are we unable to grasp the plot with certainty.

    In this sense, I actually find it MORE interesting that Harron and Ellis believe the film is “about” someone who actually, physically murders people. Because, in framing this as a satire, both novelist and filmmaker seem unable to construct a totally linear, unambiguous plot. It is as if, consciously or not, the narrative “enacts” its own argument.

    IMDb’s FAQ entry:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0144084/faq?ref_=tt_faq_sm#.2.1.3

  2. #2 by jabrody on 25/03/2014 - 5:40 pm

    I am owed a milkshake from one Ted Blumenthal for seeing this movie, in theaters. As I never received that milkshake, I was doubly disappointed by this film.

    • #3 by bslewis45 on 29/03/2014 - 5:46 am

      What did you expect from the film?

      • #4 by jabrody on 29/03/2014 - 11:42 am

        Less pretense. And I felt the ending was a cop out. It did have a very memorable/realized performance by Bale though.

      • #5 by Ben Kirbach on 29/03/2014 - 6:55 pm

        Isn’t the ending the whole point? The narrative would fundamentally change if Bateman ended up dead or in a prison/mental institution.

  3. #6 by jabrody on 29/03/2014 - 8:38 pm

    It felt like a cop out to have it all be in his head. As if the allegory went from pen to pencil or crayons.

    • #7 by Ben Kirbach on 29/03/2014 - 8:43 pm

      Ah. Well my contention would be that it’s not all in his head (see my initial comment, with quotes from both the novelist and the director claiming that murders are real), but as bslewis45’s review points out, it’s pretty ambiguous either way.

  4. #8 by bslewis45 on 29/03/2014 - 9:52 pm

    I do agree with you Josh in that the ending is too fantastical insofar as it tends towards giving us that “It was all just a dream” feeling after it is all over. Per P.I.T. Kirbach’s earlier citation, the director felt this was a mistake as well. If the intention was for the plot to be ambiguous, than the “feed me a stray cat” ATM sequence and shoot-out with the cops seems to veer it into the “it is all in his head” direction.

    Kirbach, I don’t agree with the quote “if none of the murders actually happened, the entire point of the novel would be rendered moot.” If the murders actually take place, perhaps there is a more sinister and more scathing critique to be had, but saying the narrative is rendered meaningless if he didn’t commit the murders is overkill. (And ignores the ambiguity.) Also, I think I’m signing up for Professor Radisson’s class next fall. All you have to do to pass the class is write “God is dead,” on a piece of paper. Along with Professor Jone’s archaeology class, it is going to be an easy semester.

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