American Psycho (2000)

D: Mary Harron
S: Christian Bale, Willem DaFoe

"No introduction necessary," says the poster advertising the long-delayed adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' novel. I think at least a preface is required. Ellis' novel, first published in 1991, was a death sentence on the 1980s. This vicious, postmodern satire on materialist consumer culture, dehumanisation, denial, and the rampaging masculinity which seemed to be central to it was such a shock to the system that some book shop chains refused to carry it. The film version was inevitable, but has been long in the gestation. Rumours in the mid nineties that David Cronenberg was to take it on were exciting. The novel was unfilmable, not only because of its fragmented, hallucinogenic style and structure, but because of its scenes of graphic violence and sex which no one, except maybe Cronenberg (Crash, eXistenZ) would dare to put on screen, especially after he had so boldly reconfigured the equally unfilmable and even more notorious Naked Lunch. It didn't happen. In the meantime, the American cinema actually underwent a small revolution in terms of the representation of graphic violence and an increased sense of social and psychological context for it. Films like Oliver Stone's hyperkinetic postmodern sledgehammer Natural Born Killers, Abel Ferrera's twisted, introspective Bad Lieutenant, and, yes, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, and, later, Pulp Fiction, contributed to a reinvention of the representation of criminality, psychosis, and popular culture (the latter film becoming an actual centre of popular culture for the remainder of the decade). Meanwhile the social trends of the 1990s, and the new climate of actual violence which swept the United States in the final years of the twentieth century raised new sets of questions about the whys and wherefores of both random and motivated acts of inhumanity. It is ironic that just as films became more thoughtful and demanding in their representation of violence, a rash of high profile public shootings demonstrated how frighteningly mindless it really is.

The point of this preface is merely to illustrate that while an astonishingly good adaptation of the unfilmable novel which more or less works on is own terms, Mary Harron's film of American Psycho is anachronistic and irrelevant. It may seem obvious, especially when the film is set in the 1980s and ends with a voice over which literally tells the viewer that the story has no meaning, but it is no less true. American Psycho is a film without a context, a floating signifier in a morass of postmodernism which has long out-paced the representational conventions which it employs. The novel will remain an important moment in late twentieth century culture and a noteworthy contribution to postmodern literature. The film is a footnote.

The story follows the adventures of an eighties yuppie (Christian Bale) for whom the climate of power lunches, hostile takeovers, and a celebration of amorality and greed proves a fertile nurturing ground for his psychotic impulses. He takes to murder and torture in his spare time and finds it as essential lifestyle accessory as the numerous cosmetic products, men's fashions, and hi-tech gadgets which his job and inheritance affords him. As his murder spree progresses, he finds it increasingly difficult to separate the personae of smooth playboy and psychopath to the extent that he comes to realise that they are one in the same and neither is wholly real to him. It is a fascinating story, generally well told by director and co-writer Harron (co-scripting with Guinevere Turner). Most of the basic components of the novel are there, sometimes worked in a bit more schematically than necessary, though the violence has been (understandably and inevitably) greatly toned down and the element of black humour greatly increased.

As a film in its own right, American Psycho works pretty well. It does make its points about men and money, and there are fleeting references to various cultural triggers which give insight into the character and his plastic, hyperstimulated world. It is a lot quieter about it than Natural Born Killers, but it covers some of the same ground; throwing out labels for products, video and news clips, and pounding out songs on the soundtrack which mean everything and nothing. Its a bloody valentine to junk culture, a parade of amorality and depravity masquerading as social content which produces the kind of psychotic break at the centre of the drama. The performances are good, with Bale taking the lion's share of screen time, but backed up by a cast including Chloë Sevigny (Boys Don't Cry), Samantha Mathis, Reese Witherspoon (Election), and Willem DaFoe (Affliction), most of whom, appropriately, are given little to do. This is, after all, a film about the world seen through the eyes of this singular character, and most of the other people in the film are merely targets or potential victims. This specific focus pays off in the final scenes where it is suggested that the entire film has itself been some sort of insane fantasy, perhaps a representation of a representation, a dream within a dream, which again is not an inappropriate way to approach it (and was also a feature of the novel). It is so resolutely internal that it is, as its title suggests, a film which purports to examine the psychosis of both an individual and a society.

It is on this second level that the film misses the mark. The society this film deals with is gone. It has spawned a new one (or at least a mutated version of itself), and though a consideration of the past is always useful, there is something all too moot about these snipes and swipes at the 1980s and the men it produced. Also, Harron cannot hope to replicate the level of detail presented in the novel about those times and how they affected the character, so she must settle for an overview. The final scenes featuring Ronald Reagan speaking about the Iran-contra affair are the only explicit political references, and though many are implied, the film is not forceful enough on this level to make it an effective historical satire. It lacks the depth and richness of reference to sustain it in the wake of the likes of Natural Born Killers.

It does have its moments. The first major murder is nicely subversive, with Bale coming across like something out of a 1930s surrealist cartoon as he dances around behind his victim preparing his tools while presenting a critique of the latest album by Huey Lewis and the News. The would-be climactic scene where a prostitute attempts to escape him from a charnel-house apartment is deliberately derivative of slasher horrors (and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is excerpted in one scene), and the film has a sense of the absurd which it uses to overcome the problems of adaptation and anachronism which it knows it must face. It is a brave effort, and a reasonably effective film, but it has little personality of its own apart from in moments like these. Otherwise the film is stylistically bland, and depends heavily on Bale's performance to sustain its slippage between terror and farce. It is a lot less postmodern in form than it is in context in the end, and this dulls its potential edge and lessens its impact.

American Psycho had the potential to be a powerful and important film had it been made by the right hands at the right time. The fact that what is a solid enough movie has so little real worth in the year 2000 is in itself sufficient illustration of the problems of postmodernism. The novel was a legitimate cultural artifact, the film is a by-product. This not merely because it is an adaptation. This is not a film vs. literature question. It is just that now that American Psycho exists as a novel and Natural Born Killers exists as a film, American Psycho as a film has nowhere to go but backwards. As such, if it is to make any sense and have any value, it just requires too much introduction.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.