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.