Why It Works: American Psycho

Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.


What do you get when you combine 1980's Wall Street, cocaine, Huey Lewis, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, and a honey almond body scrub? Why, a complete psychopath, of course! Mary Harron's 2000 film AMERICAN PSYCHO combines comedy, gore, satire, fashion, and an utterly insane Christian Bale to tell the story of an investment banker who wears expensive suits, eats at fancy restaurants, and ends up killing a lot of people... or does he? Here's why it works:


Murderer or not, Patrick Bateman is a prick. He's greedy, misogynistic, obsessive, spends time with yuppies he can't stand, cheats on his fiancée with a woman he can't stand, and can't generate a modicum of compassion to save his life- so why the hell would we want to watch this guy for two hours? Where AMERICAN PSYCHO reels us in is in having Patrick Bateman admit this to us right up front. "There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me... I simply am not there." Once we know we're watching a character who neither the filmmakers nor the character himself is trying to pass off as sympathetic, it frees us up to just see what he does next without having to root for him or agree with his decisions. This is also where the comedy of the film comes into play- once we know we're not meant to take anyone seriously, we can simply sit back and just enjoy the madness.

Christian Bale based his performance in AMERICAN PSYCHO on Tom Cruise's performance in real life. No, seriously.

As for the other characters, we're treated to a smorgasbord of interchangeable-but-unique yuppies, including the racist Craig McDermott, the too-slick Timothy Bryce, the effeminate Luis Carruthers, and the obnoxiously perfect Paul Allen, who- along with their trophy wives and girlfriends- show us many faces of the same capitalist monster. While some of the other players come across as relatively normal, Patrick's secretary Jean is really the only glimmer of light in an otherwise dark and twisted world. Jean may be smitten with Patrick and impressed by the corporate lifestyle, but her innocence serves as a constant reminder of just how far beyond the pale the rest of the characters have gone.

Run, Jean! You're the only one who's not completely terrible!


There's a building tension behind almost every aspect of AMERICAN PSYCHO. Patrick becomes increasingly revolted with his lifestyle, he has a detective on his heels investigating the disappearance of Paul Allen, and we see his bloodlust go from casual to insatiable. Even at the height of his hunger, however, we see a moment of doubt when he decides not to kill Jean. Bateman's gone too far to earn any kind of redemption, but his moments of near-humanity keep us intrigued rather than just waiting to see who he'll kill next. Also, as discussed above, the dark comedy element plays a huge part here. As we watch Patrick casually murder people but suffer great anxiety over the placement of his table at a restaurant or the superior quality of his associates' business cards, we can't help but laugh and be reminded of just how silly both the film and the real world are.

Appropriately enough, the sound effect of the business cards being brandished was made by slowing down the sound of a sword being drawn from its sheath.


Aaand now we come to the big question: did Patrick Bateman actually kill anyone? In his showdown with the police, Bateman blows up a cop car with a pistol (to even his own surprise), his collection of corpses disappears from Paul Allen's apartment, and Patrick's lawyer said he had dinner with Paul in London twice since his supposed disappearance. Of course, we live in a world where everyone is interchangeable, so maybe the lawyer only thought it was Paul Allen he saw. Director Mary Harron says that Bateman is in fact a serial killer, but the film's ambiguity still leaves fans wondering.

One thing we know for sure is that Christian Bale spent a day running around in nothing but sneakers and a chainsaw. Ah, the actor's life.

We could go back and forth on the possibilities, but the truth is it doesn't really matter- the point of the film is the same either way. Patrick Bateman represents a certain corporate personality, which is also represented by the world around him. If he only imagines killing people, then we're being shown how the anxiety, greed, and minutae of such a lifestyle can corrupt one's mind and lead to untold aggression. If he does go on a killing spree but gets away with it, on the other hand, then we're being shown a society which effectively condones atrocity and the Patrick Batemans of the world by not even noticing they exist or what they've done. Of course it's in our nature to want to know what really happened, but in the end it's just a question of whether it's Bateman himself or the people around them who ultimately present the film's grisly message.

Just the eyebrows alone scream serial killer.


AMERICAN PSYCHO is pointedly about the culture of New York in the 1980's (so much that the Blu-ray includes a documentary about the decade), but the characters and lifestyles the film depicts are universal. Money, greed, and lavish surroundings aside, we can all identify with the idea of lashing out at others to make ourselves feel better about some other issue we're dealing with (though fortunately, most of us do it without the aid of an axe). There's also the sense of obsession versus identity, as Patrick's knowledge of 1980's pop music and his need to be at the best restaurant, have the best business card, and wear the best clothes no doubt all contribute to the faceless, empty vessel he represents.

You know you're in trouble when Willem Dafoe plays one of the most normal characters in the movie.

Of course, we can't talk about AMERICAN PSYCHO without talking about Christian Bale's truly manic performance. Bale ranges from completely unhinged lunatic to emotionless automaton to Gordon Gecko devotee and navigates between them beautifully. Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Bill Sage, Matt Ross, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis brilliantly round out the yuppie parade, with Willem Dafoe adding his brand of strangeness and Chloë Sevigny perfectly cast as the character who doesn't belong anywhere near a conference room full of smarmy big shots. Bret Easton Ellis' novel, along with Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner's screenplay and Harron's direction give us a film at once grotesque, hilarious, and poignant, accented by the hits of the 80's and John Cale's elegantly haunting and playful score. I have to go return some videotapes, so I'll leave you with the most memorable scene from the film. Feel free to mute the volume and pretend it's Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne breaking Batman's one rule to put an end to Jared Leto's Joker.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com



Latest Entertainment News Headlines