HEAT VISION

'American Psycho' at 20: Why Christian Bale's Movie Monster Is Relevant as Ever

The actor managed to create a lasting 21st century villain, born of the '80s, because Patrick Bateman's American psychopathy is an epidemic, and it's still spreading.

"Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?" Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) enlightens a drunk and unknowingly captive Paul Allen (Jared Leto) on the genius of the band. Still talking, with a high-energy affectation that smacks of snobbery and pretension, Bateman briskly moves to the bathroom, puts on a clear raincoat and picks up a gleaming ax. Paul notices the newspaper on the floor and the sheets covering the furniture as Bateman dances back into the living room and over to his stereo. He plays what he considers to be the band's "undisputed masterpiece," "Hip to be Square." Dancing in step to the music and grinning, Bateman picks up the ax and hacks into Paul Allen, blood spattering his perfectly moisturized face and clear raincoat, blood staining the whites of his luxury apartment, and blood spilling outside the lines of his boxed-in world.

Twenty years ago, Christian Bale delivered an iconic 21st century movie monster. Mary Harron's adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' controversial 1991 novel, American Psycho, offered a chilling look at '80s yuppie culture and cemented Bale's transition from child star to one of Hollywood's greatest contemporary actors. At one time a vehicle for director Oliver Stone and star Leonardo DiCaprio, before the actor was deemed too youthful-looking for the role, Harron and Bale were both surprising choices in 2000. Yet the director and actor managed to take challenging material and provide it with a distinct voice that makes it an exceptional entry in the horror canon at the turn of the century, and a prescient look at the consumer and political culture we're grappling with 20 years later.

In a 2009 interview with Harron, the director discussed the process of finding the character of Patrick Bateman with Bale, describing his alien-like nature and his careful study of human behavior. Bale adopted a similar study, one focused on a movie star who served as Bateman's neighbor in Ellis' novel. Harron noted that Bale was very taken with Tom Cruise's energy, specifically an appearance on Letterman, which he described as "a very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes." There's a Cruise-esque quality in Bateman in that he lives to perform. While Cruise's energy comes across as an eagerness to please, to be the consummate movie star, Bateman is possessed by an eagerness to have the upper hand, to promise comfort to those around him while ultimately calculating moments to deny that comfort.

The foundation for Bale's most famous role, that of Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, can be seen in his portrayal of Patrick Bateman and the masks he adopts in the film. With his utterly convincing line delivery, a face that suggests a tortured existence even through seeming calm and pleasureful, and body language that is punctuated by physical comedy, Bale is likely one of the few actors who could excel at playing both Batman and the Joker. But American Psycho provides a complex protagonist whose existence is more indebted to the dire strife of reality than the comic book characters and Cruise-tier movie stardom Bale would later become associated with, even as Harron's film descends into the unreality of a broken mind.

"I am simply not there," Bateman says in voiceover narration early in the film. Much of American Psycho is concerned with identity. And while audiences associate Bateman as the film's as the titular "American Psycho," it isn't that simple. There is an attempt made by Bateman to distinguish himself among his peers, the other Wall Street brokers who exist within this hermetically sealed world of high-rise offices, designer suits, cocaine and nightclubs. There is an effort made by Bateman and his peers to be an individual within the confines of a culture built on mistaken and traded identities, and signifiers of wealth, which manifests in masturbatory discussions of dinner reservations and business cards. These trivial assets, used as a means to form something resembling a personality, are so banal and meaningless that they can't be anything other than comedic. But any effort to break away from the yuppie pack is quickly shunned, like closeted homosexual Luis Carruthers (Matt Ross) and his bow ties. There is a box these yuppies must fit into, because it is the only means to validate their existence. As Huey Lewis and the News said, "it's hip to be square," but Bateman isn't square. He doesn't fit into that box, despite his best efforts otherwise. Patrick Bateman is a shapeless mass, a black hole devouring the traits and habits of an insular culture, trying to build a box around himself, but he cannot be contained.

There are obvious parallels to be drawn between "American Psycho" Patrick Bateman and "Psycho" Norman Bates, right down to their surnames and monikers. But Robert Bloch's character, an overweight middle-aged bachelor, popularized as boyish and slim by Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film, is just one horror ancestor to Harron's film. Patrick Bateman's closest movie monster relative is Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), a film Bateman watches while doing ab crunches. Aesthetically, Hooper and Harron's films couldn't be more different. While American Psycho depicts a world of clean whites and perfect, mostly empty cubical spaces, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre presents a world of yellowed grime and filth, overcrowded rooms and handmade furniture bursting at the seams. Hooper's film is one of spatial assault, where every room is confrontational, creating sensory overload and unease. As an audience member, it's nearly impossible not to smell the dust, rancid meat and kerosene fumes of Hooper's world. But as hostile as Hooper's film is, it's largely devoid of blood, despite its reputation, and that's something that Harron makes up for plenty.

The differences in Hooper and Harron's directorial styles are what make the ties between Leatherface and Patrick Bateman all the more fascinating. There is, of course, American Psycho's famous scene featuring a naked Patrick Bateman chasing down a prostitute with a chainsaw, leaning over the stairwell bannister, his mouth opening and closing in anticipation like some kind of ancient, sea-dwelling creature, before dropping the chainsaw with impossible aim and halving the woman on the bottom floor. But beyond their instruments of destruction, both Bateman and Leatherface act as voids who grasp at existence through masks. Leatherface dons masks in the literal sense of carving off victims faces and wearing their skin, cutting through supposedly defined edges of personality and gender with each new mask. Bateman dons masks in figurative sense, using the case of mistaken identities in his firm, the idea that none of these yuppies are unique individuals, in order to assume the mantles of co-workers to provide alibis for his crimes. A further tie between Bateman and Leatherface is the serial killer Ed Gein, who served as the inspiration for Hooper's killer and to whom Bateman misattributes a quote. "When I see a pretty girl walking down the street, I think two things. One part of me wants  to take her out, talk to her, be real nice and sweet and treat her right," Bateman says. "And what did the other part think?" David Van Patten (Bill Sage) asks. Bateman responds, "What her head would look like on a stick," before bursting into laughter. The quote actually belongs to the Co-ed Killer, Ed Kemper, later popularized in Netflix's Mindhunter. But Bateman's misattributed quote, whether intentional or a script mistake, serves to further American Psycho's idea of interchangeable and mistaken identities.

Despite the violence at the root of Bateman's persona, it's interesting how Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner handle his violence and sexual abuse. There's a surprising lack of exploitation in American Psycho. We see Bateman walking step and step with a lone woman at a crosswalk at night, we see him playing with a blonde lock of hair, we see a head in the fridge, we see his box of "tools," a hanger, a chisel, and hear his command to his sexual partners, "We're not through yet." And we see those women leave visibly shaken, mascara running down their faces. But the specifics of each incident are left to the imagination, something the novel doesn't do, to say the least. Much of the film is built around the suggestion of violence and cruelty, which makes the question of whether Bateman actually murdered anyone at the film's end all the more justified. American Psycho in turn is not a condemnation of violence itself, but the consideration of how it becomes diversified and fetishized as an identity among the ranks of social class. Bateman's mockery and murder of a homeless man (Reg E. Cathey) in an alley is no different from his of Paul Allen or "Christie." They are rooted in his disdain for poor people and the insecurity of his own wealth. The fact that the film was written by women and directed by a woman allows it to take a pointed look at yuppie masculinity, lacking the self-consciousness needed to make any of it redeemable or charming a la Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), a great film, but obviously a different lens into the kind of depravity money permits.

Patrick Bateman is an idea. He admits this himself. He's an idea born out '80s consumer culture and Reaganomics. While the '80s has become a time of nostalgia for our contemporary pop culture, American Psycho is a reminder that it was a root of so many of the evils that affect the country today, and that the neon was all a distraction. Timothy Bryce (Justin Theroux) arrives at a similar notion at the end of the film when discussing Ronald Reagan, "He presents himself as this harmless old codger, but inside …" Bryce trails off, but his point lingers, and the idea that the president is a psychopath is broached. Bateman and his yuppies are symptoms of a larger pattern of behavior, one that has permeated New York at this level of existence. Bateman makes two references to Donald Trump in the the film. The first, "Is that Donald Trump's car?" and second, "Is that Ivana Trump?" Bateman uses Trump as a measure of his own success, the idea that if they are in the same circles, then he must have landed on a successful identity. But in terms of a contemporary viewing, it's revealing and chilling, that even in this fictional world, Bateman and Trump walked in the same circles.

As Bateman's "mask of sanity" slips and his murderous escapades are called into question, the audience, like Bateman, is left to question what he's done and who he is. Bateman's only singular trait among yuppies was that he was a murderer, and even that is potentially untrue. The same questions the film began with, it also ends with, which Bateman admits through his final line, "This confession has meant nothing." But is that true? Even if all of his murders were fantasies, doodles drawn in notebooks, there is still a dangerous psychosis in play, and the threat of action hanging over him. Does the meaninglessness of his confession mean that he's still a monster even if he hasn't acted on his impulses, or does it mean that because there are no consequences within his place in society, that his actions, whether real or imagined, simply do not matter? Perhaps both are true. Perhaps Bateman, within his social scene, is even less unique than he imagines himself to be, and is surrounded by men driven by similar desires and designs, with murderous impulses flickering in their brains, and the sound of pop music barely masking the sound of revving chainsaws.

So what is Patrick Bateman? He's the worst aspects of American culture, greed, commercialism, addiction, hedonism and bloodlust, popularized in the '80s and allowed to flourish into the '90s and 2000s, all fighting for superiority in an individual and manifesting in murderous rage. Bateman's American psychopathy isn't a rarity, it's shared, traded and bought like stocks. Christian Bale managed to create a lasting 21st century movie monster, born of the '80s, because Bateman’s American psychopathy is an epidemic, and it's still spreading.

  • Richard Newby
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