“I have to return some video tapes…”: American Psycho (2000)

Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name, American Psycho has Christian Bale playing the malevolent Wall Street financier Patrick Bateman. It traces the fall of our anti-hero from a misanthropic man filled with contempt, leisurely dividing his time between business meetings to dine and recklessly womanize, to a homicidal psychopath, who feels compelled to murder those around him, with or without the slightest provocation. Bateman is a wealthy, heterosexual yuppie who carefully masks his violent misogynistic and racist attributes – but the question is, for how long? His murders show his extreme apathy towards beggars, homeless people and women and throws light on a void, emotionless core that is perhaps the result of a blatant hedonistic lifestyle. Bateman lives in the poshest residential area of Manhattan, and as such it is difficult to imagine how he escapes the law with the kind of brutal crimes he commits.

ampsy3But it is important to note that the line between reality and illusion is blurred at the conclusive moment of the movie. The film rises above that of the narratology of a serial killer and poses a higher, more critical challenge: We are witnessing a man who is losing his identity and forming natural xenophobic tendencies in a mass manufactured, materialistic society. ampsy2

 The film is very well a critique of capitalism as much as it is of personal neuroticism. Bateman is powerful and privileged and indeed a part of the crème de la crème of society. Perhaps he feels stifled by the monotony of his extravagant, Dionysian lifestyle. Perhaps he is looking for something more and when he fails to find, it might be that he creates an alternate reality for himself. This is strictly my personal opinion, but I do not see Patrick Bateman as a quintessential serial killer such as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. He aspires to be one as he voraciously reads up on Ted Bundy and other such mass murders and criminals but Bateman’s crimes, perhaps are all psychological, giving him release from a banal, highly competitive, superficial life. His release takes the form of extreme violence, but we are never really sure how much of it is authentic. The other way to analyze it is perhaps seeing the situation in terms of a lack of communication and an inherent indifference that people harbour for fellow beings- even when Bateman frantically confesses his heinous acts to his lawyer, he is not taken seriously. Nothing is of importance. His associates are as flamboyantly decadent as he is, and the primary anxiety is about acceptance, or “fitting in” as Bateman says to his fiancee band it reflects in the exclusiveness of the restaurants they go to or the the design of their business cards, clothes, hairstyle and of course, the beauty of their trophy girlfriends. There are no real bonds or emotional connections- in fact the characters hardly seem real and to quote Bateman,

“I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.”

Indeed, throughout the film, the characters mis-identify each other (much like they mis-identify restaurants) which highlight the superficial nature of their relationships and the complete breakdown of individuality. There is something much more dangerous and horrifying than the knives, hatchets and chainsaws that Bateman desperately reaches out for. There is something more sinister than all the blood he spills. The interminable cynicism and disdain that the characters harbour exemplify irreconcilable alienation that leaves no room for hope. Bateman’s “crimes” will bear no punishment because they are as immaterial as he is in the eyes of the society he lives in. He is at once an outcast and the high priest of his dominion. Bateman comes to terms with the fact that the world is as sick as the workings of his fevered imagination. Devoid of any moral compunctions, he is unaware of his fall from humanity. He does not enjoy the crimes he commits like Alex de Large in A Clockwork Orange or Dr. Hannibal Lecter- for him it is just an insatiable thirst to perhaps find the meaning of his existence in the cacophony of murders that he so called commits remorselessly, one after the other, indeed in ridiculous, rather unimaginable numbers.
Ellis’ work has been often quoted directly by the script, the most notable instance being the part where Bateman appropriates this definition to his persona – “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there”. The movie concludes with Bateman’s monologue:

“There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it I have now surpassed. My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this, there is no catharsis; my punishment continues to elude me, and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”

Here’s a link to the trailer: