In bringing novels to the screen, filmmakers tend to have trouble conveying the interior monologue of a firstperson narrator—getting the camera inside the author’s head, so to speak. But in the case of American Psycho, that liability becomes an asset. What makes the Bret Easton Ellis novel so dubious—despite the brilliance of its satirical conceit—is the alarming
gusto with which the author throws himself into detailed accounts of torturing and butchering women. But in adapting the book, writerdirector Mary Harron, an expatriate in Manhattan, conjures American Psycho from a circumspect distance that seems almost, well, Canadian. The book was tediously long; the movie is crisply economical. There are grisly splashes of violence, but the film’s tone is closer to Buñuel than to Tarantino.
Harron leaves little room to identify with protagonist Patrick Bateman, either as hero or villain. Played with a deliciously amoral neutrality
by Christian Bale, Bateman is a Wall Street predator obsessed with presentation, whether he is dining out or murdering in. Worshipping fashion, food and fitness, he is a polished archetype of male vanity, a man with a heart of stainless steel.
While popping Bateman into feminist relief—in effect, objectifying him— Harron fleshes out the female characters. Chloë Sevigny brings subtle pathos to the role of Jean, his longsuffering secretary. Cara Seymour undercuts the comedy with a grimly realistic portrayal of Christie, one of his prostitute victims, while Guinevere Turner (who cowrote the script with Harron) and Reese Witherspoon play minor roles with pinpoint precision. Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, dishes up irony as a detective investigating the murders.
Owing much of its style, and substance, to the pristine cinematography of Andrzej Sekula (Pulp Fiction) and Gideon Ponte’s sleek production design, the satire ticks along beautifully for a while. Later, however, as Harron sends up the violence with a horror pastiche of chainsaw madness and severed heads, the movie loses its balance. And as it burrows into Bateman’s psychology, a maze of confused identity, it runs up against the novel’s dramatic conundrum. As Bateman points out, “I simply am not there.” His character is a void, his story a cul-de-sac. But that, of course, is the whole point: trapped in the living hell of his own existence, he embodies a culture that offers no exit.
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