“American Psycho,” Sundance’s most talked-about film this year, lives a double life as much as its main character does.
By day, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a Wall Street tycoon at the height of the late-’80s, capitalist-greed era. He fits in with his associates — so well, in fact, that they are often mistaken for each other. White guys in dark suits all look the same, after all; even their personalities — when they bother to have them — are interchangeable.
By night, Bateman kills people, pretty much randomly, and mostly just because he has a strong urge to kill. He’s methodical like a serial killer, but he’s methodical about his daily life, too. He has a rigorous health regimen, looks being soooo much more important than anything else, and he dresses only in the sharpest suits. (Ironically, it is going to these extremes that he is able to blend in amongst his fellow materialistic jerks. If he were to act like a “normal” person, he would stick out like a sore thumb in that environment.)
“American Psycho” is just as two-faced. It works best as a dark (and I mean DARK) satire of Wall Street greed, with Bateman and his colleagues getting jealous over the quality of one another’s business cards, and the exclusivity of the restaurants at which they can get reservations.
The other side of “American Psycho” is where it will have trouble appealing to a mass audience. Many will see it as a psycho-killer story, but it doesn’t work as one, nor does it even try to. The film is told entirely through Bateman’s eyes, making everyone else a minor character. There is utterly no suspense over whom he will kill, because we see people the same way he does: as nobodies, nothing more than potential victims. We care about none of them.
This makes it awful as a psycho-killer story (which, again, it’s not trying to be), but improves it as a piercing social commentary. Bateman is no more cold-hearted or unfeeling than his colleagues; the only difference is that he takes his lack of regard for humanity a step further. When money and success are more important than people, killing the people is not much of a crime.
The film’s ending is intentionally unsatisfying, driving home the point about the society in which Bateman lives. Again, this will make it a hard sell for mass audiences.
Bale is outstanding as Bateman, playing the role to its sexist, narcissistic hilt. His rhapsodizing over ’80s pop stars like Phil Collins and Whitney Houston, which he often does just prior to killing people, is audaciously funny, the kind of funny you can’t believe you’re laughing at. Other good actors are present, but their characters exist only as potential (and actual) victims for our “hero.”
B+ (; )
In 2012, I reconsidered this movie for my Re-Views column at Film.com.