American Psycho was released at the turn of the century, but this satire based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name is flat out 80s in sensibility and style. If not for the simple math that precludes Christian Bale from having actually made this picture in the late 80s, it’d be difficult to believe that this wasn’t a contemporary picture. The excess, the dress, it all feels as real and vivid as Patrick Bateman’s homicidal visions. Or, wait? Did all of that really happen? We’ll get there, but first, a quick recap, Bale stars as Patrick Bateman, an ultra rich, Wall Street yuppie with a barely contained murderous rage. As the picture plays out, we watch him lose whatever purchase he had on reality and fly into full on murder mode on the basis of such mild provocation as a superior business card, or less.
But before we can do our usual work of examining what’s on the screen and behind the scenes through a feminist lens, we have to do some extra credit. We have to decide if we’re meant to believe the events actually happen as Patrick perceives them or if it’s all in his head. And further, to what extent the intentions of this picture (from a female director and two female screenwriters) justify the way it treats its women.
S, I find myself once again hitting you with some massive questions straight out the gate, but at least I’m not asking you what you think of my business card.
S: Oof. Way to make it easy for me, B. I’ll take your questions one at a time.
First, did the events actually happen as Patrick perceives them? My answer: Yes and no.
Is Patrick Bateman a psychopath? Undoubtedly. Even if you believe that he isn’t a murderer, his behavior is psychopathic. No one but a true psychopath would tell a bartender “you’re a fucking ugly bitch. I want to stab you to death, then play around with your blood” because the bar is cash only.
Does Patrick Bateman imagine things? Yup. Unless ATMs in NYC actually began requesting to be fed stray cats, Patrick’s delusional.
Did Patrick Bateman kill people? Probably. I posit that he did, in fact, kill the woman he walks next to on the street toward the beginning of the movie, the homeless man in the alley, “Christie” the sex worker and his friend Elizabeth. I think it’s likely he also killed Paul Allen and went on the gun-toting rage toward the end of the film. After all, even though Patrick’s attorney notes that he had lunch with Paul after Patrick killed him, mistaken identity is a major issue in this Wall Street crowd. And, in the 80s, there was enough of a dearth of CCTV and wealth of rich white guy privilege that Patrick easily could have gotten away with a murder spree.
On to your next question, do the intentions of this picture justify its treatment of women? My answer? I don’t know. I usually try to avoid the feminist think pieces about films we’re revisiting because I don’t want to parrot others’ conclusions, but in this case, I found myself looking to others for their take. Several writers lauded American Psycho as a feminist masterpiece. After all, this satire portrays its male characters terribly, shining a light on the ways in which these men view women as objects, accessories and playthings to be discarded. And in Patrick’s case, this #MeToo-level treatment of women extends to horrific violence. On one hand, I can see this side of the argument, but on the other, I’m trying to rationalize it with the physical reaction I had to seeing the violence toward women — both verbal and physical — this time around. It shook me. And maybe that’s the point. But it felt excessive.
B – I’d love your take on the same questions.
B: I thought I was going to get away with leaving the mental heavy lifting to you, S, but I see now it was always going to be this way. Okay, then.
Is Patrick Bateman a psychopath? Absolutely. The bartender example is the perfect support of that fact, as is the murderous rage he feels over business cards and his own admission that he’s simply, “not here.” There is a mask of Patrick Bateman, he says, but, while flesh and blood, the man isn’t like you or I. It’s this point, I think that’s critical to the next couple of questions.
Did Patrick Bateman imagine things? You betcha. Something in that man is driving him to kill and to act as he does, and perhaps to think he’s cooler than he is, given the number of people who tell him Patrick Bateman is a loser.
Did Patrick Bateman kill people? Yeah, I think we can say he did. Sure, he’s imagining things, but why on earth should that mean his actions weren’t real. I think it quite likely that the vast majority of the murders we saw were real. I mean, who would take his voicemail seriously? Even his biggest blunders seemed to help him hide in plain sight, an Adonis of a rich white guy in a nice suit, who would think twice?
Do the intentions of this picture justify its treatment of women? I go back and forth here. While I absolutely read American Psycho as a parody of the excesses of the 80s, I’m not sure totally convinced that the actions taken towards the women we painted in such a way as to be an obvious criticism. Not one of them ever opposes or bests Patrick, and none of them is captured in a positive light. There’s Reese Witherspoon as a selfish, air-headed, socialite of a fiance, Chloe Sevigny as the assistant who allows Patrick to tell her what to wear and thanks him for it. There’s the sidepiece who is so high she doesn’t know what restaurant she’s in. And the unfortunate sex worker who gets mansplained about music before having real horrors acted upon her. As a viewer, I agonized for these women, but the film doesn’t do them any favors. Patrick may be a psychopath, but he’s quite often likeable, while none of these women are given anything to make them anything more than plot elements. I too had seen this movie many times before, but I couldn’t shake a sick feeling and desire to turn it all off this time through. So, while I logically appreciate the thought, I have to trust my gut. And also that sad inkling that tells me misplaced fandom has a lot of dudes putting Patrick Bateman on a pedestal.
Wowza. Now that we have the groundwork, S, let’s get into the real grit here. Tell me what you’re burning to discuss.
S: Although the violence left me queasy, one area in American Psycho where I think director Mary Harron nailed the satire is in her focus on the subtle ways in which misogyny permeates Patrick’s surroundings. In the film’s first scene, as Patrick’s guy group gathers at a ritzy restaurant, one of them exclaims, “I hate this place. It’s a chick’s restaurant.” At a later dinner gathering, Justin Theroux mansplains Sri Lanka to anyone in a skirt who will listen. Later in the film, one of the guys throws out this gem: “There are no girls with good personalities.” Cut the violence from the film, and you’d think the gentlemen of Sterling Cooper (or one of its many iterations) had time traveled 15 years into the future.
But here’s the thing. In every single one of these interactions, Patrick’s friends are painted as pathetic. Their toxic masculinity is put on display to be ridiculed, not admired. This is where I think Mary Harron killed it (pun intended).
B, what else haven’t we explored? Take it from here. I need to return some videotapes.
B: In the scope of everything Patrick Bateman does, the thing I keep coming back to is so minor, I feel almost foolish dwelling on it, but we’re here now and I have to chat at you about this. What is the deal with him mansplaining music to absolutely everyone, all the time? Even Paul doesn’t escape this, which speaks to Patrick’s narcissism, superiority complex and self-obsession, over and above his rampant hatred of women. But here’s the part that’s really eating at me, I hate what he’s doing, but he makes some really astute observations. What does that say about the “brilliant assholes” we so often allow to thrive in our culture? And also, I don’t remember ever obsessing over this before. Is it bothering me more in the age of social media and my years as a film writer and lady in marketing where there’s been near-constant exposure to dudes who *know* they are the smartest person in the room?
Tell me, S, am I overthinking this? And, because he’s not totally off-base, which Patrick Bateman jam would you most want to add to a playlist in 2018?
S: B, I would add one more environ to your list. As ladies who enjoy the geekier things in life, we are literally awash in “um, actually…” culture. I do think there’s something to your unease (and p.s. I had the same experience). There have been men who mansplained since humans first started to walk upright, but it is only in the last few years that women have named it and started to resist it. I think maybe the reason Patrick’s mansplaining didn’t previously bother us is because that type of behavior was “just the way it was” and the feminist sea change of the past few years has changed our perspectives on it.
For my Patrick-inspired playlist, I have two picks. The first: although the scene it’s used in makes me ill, I adore everything Phill Collins does, so it’s gotta be Sussudio. My second pick might be cheating, because Patrick doesn’t mansplain it, but it’s playing at one of the “too cool for school” clubs he visits early in the film. New Order’s True Faith is one of my longtime faves, and actually IS on a current playlist.
Alright B, I need your playlist picks and your stray observations, and then let’s do some math.
B: I too have to cheat a little bit, because Patrick only kind-of mansplains my pick via voiceover, but it’s still a jam-and-a-half. Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible.” I also found a track listing that includes The Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” though I don’t recall when it happens in the picture, I like the idea that of it being there, even if it is on the nose. Which brings us to everyone’s favorite time: stray observations.
- Patrick Bateman makes my skin crawl, but I respect the hell out of his skincare game
- I am absolutely positive that these credits had an influence on the opening credits for “Dexter”
- There are way more prolific performers in this movie than I had remembered: Reese, Josh Lucas, Justin Theroux and Chloe Sevigny all came as a surprise to me
What random bits of insight do you have for us, S?
S: It’s about to get very random up in here. Let’s hit it.
- I learned this little tidbit of knowledge in my American Psycho feminist theory googling: Leonardo DiCaprio was originally offered the role of Patrick Bateman, and legend has it, Gloria Steinem talked him out of taking it. Ironically, she became Christian Bale’s stepmom five months after the film was released.
- Justin Theroux’s dancing is a thing of beauty.
- What is up with that scene where Patrick keeps saying “we have to promote equal rights for women”? He has no problem talking openly about dissecting girls, being in “murders and executions” and calling dry cleaners bitches, so why put on a feminist act in this moment?
- Also, what is up with the realtor at Paul Allen’s place? Does she care so much about getting a killer commission (pun intended) that she covers up a whole lotta murders, or is her weirdness all in Patrick’s head?
- Clearly, I need to get new business cards.
Alright B, hit us with your ‘rithmetic and let’s pass some judgment.
B: I dunno, Patrick Bateman might kill for your card, no one in the 80s would have anything like it! But we’re here to math:
- +5 cringes for the fact that Patrick Bateman is the voice of just about every toxic thing the world thinks about women, it may have been designed as satire, but he’s fallen to some misplaced fandom
- +5 more cringes for the corners of the internet that take Patrick at face value and are probably calling for men’s rights at this very moment
- +3 cringes for Patrick telling his assistant to wear dresses and that she’s “prettier than” the outfit she’s wearing
- +3 cringes for Patrick telling his fiance that he wants breast implants (for her) for Christmas
- -10 cringes for Mary Herron and Guinevere Turner and what they were trying to do with the satire in this film
- -1 cringe for the way Patrick’s toxic masculinity is cut from under him by something as inconsequential as a business card, so simple, but plays so true
Okay S, by my count, that still leaves us at 5 cringes, and whatever the filmmaker’s intention, I just can’t get past the visceral unpleasantness American Psycho inspired in the both of us based on its treatment of women. What do you say? Does our charming psychopath deserve more credit than I’m giving him?
S: I have just a few more maths to add to this equation.
- +5 cringes for Patrick’s chosen workout soundtrack: porn
- -5 cringes because although I’m not sure it accomplished what its creators set out to do, this film was helmed by ladies
And yet again, B, we are entirely on the same page. I give Mary Herron and Guinevere Turner lots of credit for their intention of turning Bret Easton Ellis’s novel — which I’m pretty sure was not intended to be a critique of toxic masculinity — into a satire of the same. But where the film fell short for me in this post-#MeToo rewatch was that I had trouble distinguishing the satire of the thing from the thing itself. The lines blurred. And for that, this film gets a 5/10 on the cringe-o-meter.
Next time, dear readers, we’re peeling the onion that is a Georgian-era classic adapted into a 21st century form. Will we pan the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for its failure to pass the Bechdel test or praise the source material as a progressive work of art of its time? Only time will tell.
Main image credit: Universal Studios
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