The film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis visceral novel American Psycho is 20 years old. Debuting in 2000 when the Y2K bug had us all cowering in fear, 2021 feels like the perfect opportunity to revisit the movie at a time when a proper virus is ravaging the planet.
American Psycho’s timing felt perfect in the early noughties as fear over a millennium coming to an end and the excesses of the past decades caught up with our fragile psyches. The film (directed by indie filmmaker Mary Harron) is ambitious in scope, and its themes are difficult to get a handle on. The movie intentionally unravels a story of damaged morals in a wholly ambiguous way, leaving the viewer to make sense of what they’ve seen and reconcile the actions of the film’s characters.
American Psycho: The plot
** Warning: Major spoilers for American Psycho ahead. If you’ve not yet seen the film, stop reading NOW. If you’ve already seen it, step right up and enjoy the ride **
In the film, Christian Bale (in his breakout role) plays Patrick Bateman, a high-flying investment banker during the peak of excess that is the 80s. Bateman, on the surface, is a calm, well-educated man who displays the sort of sophistication that only wealth can afford.
His life revolves around dining at trendy restaurants and keeping up appearances for his fiancée Evelyn (a young Reese Witherspoon) and his circle of wealthy and shallow associates, most of whom he hates. His outside life is a showy masquerade of power and excess with success judged by the quality of a man’s business card.
Bateman envies the supposed superiority of co-workers, especially Paul Allen (Jared Leto), whose business card he perceives to be better than his. This seemingly harmless comparison unleashes a rage within Bateman that sees him murder a homeless man and his dog. Unsatisfied by his actions, Bateman murders Allen in his apartment with a sledgehammer to the tune of ‘Hip to be Square’ by Huey Lewis and the News while delivering a monologue on the song’s artistic merits.
This is only the start of Bateman’s descent into psychosis and despite the suspicions of Detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe), he hires two prostitutes, Christie and Sabrina, and treats them to a night of violence and bondage (mainly off-screen) while espousing the talents of the band Genesis. Music and violence go hand in hand for Bateman and his passion for both intertwine throughout the film.
After unsuccessfully trying to murder another colleague who has a superior business card (seriously, why not just get a better one yourself?) Bateman takes his frustrations out on his secretary Jean by holding a nail gun to her head only to fail to fire when he receives a telephone message from his fiancé.
With the body count rising, Detective Kimball meets Bateman for lunch and tells him he is not under suspicion in Allen’s disappearance, but he clearly has reservations about his involvement. Kimball reveals that Paul Allen was spotted in London, much to Bateman’s confusion and heightening the sense that everything is not as it seems.
Bateman invites the prostitute Christie back to his apartment with a girl called Elizabeth. During sex, Elizabeth is murdered, and Christie tries to flee only to stumble on multiple female corpses. Bateman pursues and drops a chainsaw on her as she runs down a staircase, killing her.
Bateman’s mental state is deteriorating rapidly, and after an ATM tells him to, “feed me a stray cat”, he shoots a woman who tries to stop him. The police give chase and after a short pursuit, Bateman kills all four police officers, who are seemingly incapable of shooting him, again leaving the viewer to wonder if Bateman’s actions are real or part of some delusion.
Bateman enters a building he assumes to be his office where he murders a security guard and janitor. There he calls his lawyer Harold Carnes and leaves a frantic confession on his answering machine.
The following morning, Bateman goes back to Allen’s apartment, expecting to clean up the dead bodies, but he finds the property to be vacant and up for sale. Bateman later sees Carnes at a restaurant and talks to him about the phone message. Carnes mistakes Bateman for someone else and laughs off the phone confession because he’d seen Allen in London recently. Bateman, confused and exhausted, returns to his business associates where he is left to muse whether he is a murderer or if everything he thought he’d done was a hallucination.
Pretty straight forward then?
The synopsis for American Psycho paints a straightforward picture of a deranged killer taking his frustrations out on others. And I’ve presented it deliberately that way to show how simplistic and derivative the film’s plot appears on paper. But American Psycho is anything but simplistic. Within its many layers, the film deals with mental illness in a way that leaves you second-guessing at every turn. Did Bateman kill Paul Allen, or did his rival move to London? What’s the deal with the missing bodies in Allen’s apartment, and why does Bateman’s lawyer mistake him for someone else? Is Christian Bale’s character the serial killer he claims to be, or are his actions all in his head?
While it’s almost impossible to answer many of the questions posed by the film, we can analyse its themes and dissect its characters to unravel the truth behind Patrick Bateman’s mind.
Bateman has a severe personality disorder
Before we delve into the ending of American Psycho, we need to clarify one key aspect of Bateman’s character — he’s a psychopath. But being a psychopath doesn’t mean he killed anybody. His thought process is deranged, but the images in his head may be just that, images.
More importantly, Bateman suffers from an antisocial personality disorder, and it is this disorder that promotes his actions. He manipulates those around him and lies without realising it. He lacks any empathy and feels an unwarranted rage. He feels no guilt for his actions, whether they are real or otherwise, and he has no regard for the lives of others.
No matter which way you look at it, he is a killer, but the question is, are his homicidal visions and impulses real or part of his delusion? That’s the million-dollar question and one that Harron as screenwriter and director keeps admirably ambiguous throughout.
Is Bateman really Patrick Bateman?
Another aspect of Bateman’s delusion is his own identity. Throughout the film, Christian Bale’s character refers to himself as Patrick Bateman, but very few others do. In fact, he is repeatedly called other names by the people he meets. Is Bateman really Bateman or is the ‘character’ of Bateman another part of his delusion?
But the identity crises extends beyond his own character. During the movie, Bateman constantly misidentifies people. In the opening restaurant scene, he corrects a discussion about the identity of Paul Allen by saying, “[that’s] not Paul Allen. Paul Allen is on the other side of the room over there.” But the man he points to is clearly not Leto’s Allen.
Allen returns the favour when he and Bateman first meet, and he mistakes him for Marcus Halberstram. Bateman brushes off the mistake as “logical” because both he and Halberstram do the same job and, “He and I even go to the same barber.”
Identity is a key theme of the film. Bateman and his associates do the same job, have similar levels of success, wear similar clothes, and dine in the same restaurants. Tiny perceived differences, like a better business card, drive Bateman’s envy and bring his delusions to the surface. The film begs the question, if everyone is the same, how do you know who you are? Bateman clearly doesn’t, and this drives his actions throughout the film.
A critique of 80s male hedonism
Just like the book the film is based on, American Psycho isn’t really a story about the psychotic Patrick Bateman. Bateman’s actions are the horrific sheen on the surface of self-indulgent 80s Wall Street male behaviour and the vanity that drove the actions of the time.
The film delves into the overindulgence of the decade with a scalpel and dissects how hedonistic greed leads to full-blown psychosis. In a time of abundance, success is judged in the quality of a business card and the lack of identity when everybody prospers festers in Bateman’s mind.
The primary reason Bateman can get away with murder (if that is indeed what he did) is because nobody knows who he is, and nobody cares about other individuals. When Bateman visits Allen’s apartment near the end of the movie, the bodies he left are gone, and the audience is left wondering if the murders took place, or, even more disturbing, if the real estate agent has removed them so she can sell the property. Nobody cares about anybody in the film. Even the police officer investigating Allen’s disappearance dismisses his suspicions with a vague “somebody has seen him” report.
Every character is self-centred and completely self-absorbed. They focus their attention solely on acquiring more wealth, displaying this to others, and snorting cocaine in nightclub bathrooms. The biggest problem they face is trying to get a dinner reservation at Dorsia, the place they just have to be seen at. The film does a wonderful job of exaggerating the 80s “greed is good” notion and creates a world of vain people doing whatever they want with impunity.
How does the film American Psycho differ from Brett Easton Ellis’ book?
Every book made into a film goes through several changes. It is often impossible to express the words on a page without making them feel stilted, clumsy, or misconstruing their meaning. American Psycho is no different and Harron along with co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner made several changes. Let’s have a look at a few in detail.
The theme of homophobia
The book was released in 1991, which was a very different time to the early 2000s when the film premiered. In the novel, Bateman comes across as an extremely homophobic character who constantly criticizes gay people and refers to others with derogatory gay slurs. At one point he even (maybe?) brutally murders an old gay man in Central Park before killing his dog too.
While Bale’s character also senselessly kills people, he doesn’t have an outwardly violent attitude towards gay people. Only once does he show a homophobic streak when becoming repulsed by the attention of a male co-worker in a bathroom.
Bateman shows a disturbing obsession with the musicians of the era to the point where the book often feels like a scathing commentary on the music industry. Three entire chapters are dedicated to discussing specific popular singers of the time, namely: Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis.
While we see some of this obsession in the film (especially the Huey Lewis pre-Paul Allen murder scene), much is left out perhaps down to the dwindling careers of the singers and the time gap between the book and the release of the movie.
The murder of Bethany
One of the biggest changes from book to the film is the death of Bateman’s ex-girlfriend Bethany. In the book, Bateman meets Bethany for lunch before she accompanies him back to his apartment. There, Bateman, who had shown some compassion towards her, hits her with a mace, stabs her repeatedly, then bites her fingers off, all while laughing uncontrollably. He also shoots her with a nail gun.
In the film, the gruesome scene is (possibly understandably) missing altogether, and the nail gun is almost used on Bateman’s secretary instead.
The murder of the young boy
One section of the book that didn’t make it into the film is the part where Bateman murders a young boy while visiting the zoo. In the novel, Bateman cuts the boy’s throat before admonishing himself for doing so because children are innocent and have no mistakes to pay for.
This is another scene missing from the film, although Bateman highlights similar views on the innocence of children during dinner with his associates.
Both the movie and the book highlight Bateman’s sensitivity about his Rolex Datejust 16013 watch, but the obsession is much more obvious in the novel. The watch is mentioned 26 times in the novel compared to just a couple of times in the film. Why? Well, apparently Rolex took exception to one of their timepieces being referenced in a film about a serial killer and asked for it to be removed. As a result, it is simply referred to as “the watch” in the movie.
Violence and deaths
The level of violence in the novel is incredibly disturbing, with entire chapters dedicated to describing every gruesome detail. To avoid controversy, the movie cuts out many of the more graphic scenes while watering down others. In short, jellyfish aren’t microwaved, and eyes don’t get burnt out.
The number of kills is also far less in the movie, with only 15 murders seen or referred to (or bodies appearing) compared to 50 in the book.
American Psycho: In conclusion
American Psycho remains a seminal piece of work in both book and film format. The movie is often dismissed as another slasher variant like the Screams and I Know What You Did Last Summers of the era. But describing American Psycho as a slasher movie is missing the point. Few films truly dig into the thought process of psychosis with quite so much insight and bravado. My tip is, if you haven’t seen the film yet, dig out a copy because as Huey Lewis and the News sang, “It’s hip to be square.” Just don’t expect an easy ride if you do.