A retrospective essay
WRITTEN BY KEVIN LAU
AMERICAN PSYCHO - RETURNING VIDEOTAPES
Twenty years ago, on April 14th, 2000, Mary Harron’s American Psycho hit theaters and generated financial success and mostly positive reviews from critics. Since then, it has gain a cult following and still remains relevant today for some of it’s one-liners and the infamous Huey Lewis and the News scene with the iconic performance by Christian Bale opposite of Jared Leto (and when you watch this scene, you start to wonder why the Batman and Joker roles were given to the wrong person (Not that Bale’s performance in the Dark Knight films are bad, but… Just watch that scene. Or the whole film, for that matter).
American Psycho, as a film, serves as a commentary on male vanity, diving deep into the psyche of narcissistic sociopath Patrick Bateman. Bale’s performance and the screenplay are the two most heralded aspects of the film, the writing providing a subtle yet solid source for Bale’s nothing-held-back rendition of that one Tom Cruise interview with David Letterman. Every word and every action that Bale executed, I believed. And the scene I felt truly tied the character together was where Bateman has a threesome with two prostitutes, constantly checking himself out in the mirror and flexing, admiring his own masculinity. Oddly enough, this scene was almost cut out of the film and had to be edited down to avoid a NC-17 rating.
But how does the film hold up now in 2020? After all, upon release of not only the film but also the novel it’s based on in 1991, the general public didn’t want too much to do with it, some sources calling it misogynistic due to the main character killing women, mostly prostitutes, and in general being a bad dude. I wasn’t old enough at the time of the movie’s release to be aware of the buzz surrounding the film, nor was I alive when the novel was released, but I imagine the response might be something similar to the road up to 2019’s release of Joker, where news sources and the general public considered such a film to be labeled as dangerous and could spark criminal activity.
And as we can see now in April of 2020, Joker turned out to be the least of our concerns.
Unlike Joker, however, American Psycho uses a disturbing protagonist for viewers to critique themselves instead of asking for sympathy. I think part of the reason the execution is so commendable is because it was directed by a woman, eliminating the male gaze completely. We can notice this with the use of wide shots and how the more gruesome, disturbing, and sexual scenes don’t use close-ups of the action, but instead the reactions.
For example, when Bateman is chopping Paul’s head with an axe, we’re not seeing the axe hitting the head. We’re seeing Bateman reacting to hitting with the axe. When Bateman starts shooting people in the climax, we have a distance from the action as an outsider looking in, which also gives us a sense of how cold and indifferent Bateman is to his own actions in this sequence. On an emotional level, I feel like American Psycho gives us a real first-person narrative in film format, which is something rarely achieved in film.
This emotional level of filmmaking helps the audience critique themselves with the film, notably when Bateman and his coworkers talk about women or politics. We get really close to Bateman when he has an opinion he wants to share, notably the dinner scene near the beginning where he sounds like a liberal to garner admiration from everyone at the table. Of course, we know he doesn’t believe a word of what he says because of his actions towards women, minorities, and the homeless.
Do we actually believe what we say or is it all for the sake of image?
I believe most people might find this kind of self-reflection uncomfortable. After all, who wants to see themselves as the bad guy? This, of course, leads to deflection, blaming other people or things for their own problems, which is also what Patrick Bateman does with women, the homeless, and even down to his own coworkers for just having a better business card than him.
Is this the reason why American Psycho is still hailed as one of the best of cinema twenty years later? Possibly. Much like Shakespeare, the film generates an emotional resonance with its audience. Despite it being about one of the most inhumane characters ever conceived, the story itself is one of the most human, not critiquing society or the political climate at the time, but rather human beings as a whole.
I also think, after researching the responses to this film’s release and witnessing the release of Joker, that we as film viewers still have a way to go as far as how we critique a film. Big-budget blockbuster films typically write their protagonists as self-inserts for the audience, learning the world through the characters’ eyes. With American Psycho, much like The Wolf of Wall Street, you can’t do that. Especially after the twist where the film states that Patrick Bateman is an unreliable narrator, and we’re left to ponder with him on what was real and what wasn’t while his monologue negates any idea that growth has happened to his character. Instead, we have to ask the question, “Is this film doing what it’s trying to do?” What choices is the filmmaker making to achieve their goal? Is their goal moral? Does the end justify the means?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to return some videotapes.