American Psycho

Friday, January 1, 1999


Movie Real, Sick

It ain't American Misanthrope. Bret Easton Ellis's book and Mary Harron's film (from a script by Harron, Guinevere Turner, and an uncredited Ellis himself) vary wildly on the implicit/explicit scale but not much in intent or tone, though it would be fairly difficult for any live-action film, by the merits of its actors being alive and pumping blood, to approach the utter flatness of the characters on the page (Maybe the effect could be achieved by computer animation, rendering the characters alike and lifeless [or alive and likeless], as in the Starship Troopers cartoon show [weekday mornings, local listings]).

There are a number of ways to read the book. For example, it can be read shrieking, or running in circles. If you remain stationary and make it through, though, you are ostensibly given the option of deciding whether Patrick Bateman engages in the various horrific acts or whether it's all in his cranium. I suppose you can feel free to make this decision, to the same extent that you can puzzle over whether the events in Speed really take place or are in Keanu's head.

The choice is technically sort of yours, then, to read American Psycho (book or movie) as a pretty decent satire or a really dull psychological study of a mind teetering dangerously blah blah blah. The latter pretty much negates itself: if it's all in his mind, he's not really dangerous anyway. Even if you figure a guy with such heavy stuff in his head must be dangerous, there's no real change in thickness to anything 'probably-real' at any point, and you can't establish any more threatening definite dialogue (dialogue with a response in a non-murderous or hallucinatory scene) than "I don't think I can control myself" and "I don't want to hurt you," and if you can show me an affluent white male of 27 years old who never said "I don't want to hurt you" to a woman, I'll eat him.

Be wary, then, of critics who claim that none of it really happens, as if that opinion is validated as fact just because they realized it's possible. If it's imaginary, then it's about just one weak person. One TV critic says Bateman is "too weak to kill"; this is the strongest argument offered by this doctoral candidate for psychology. Maybe he's too weak not to kill.

Bateman says to a girl, "You are a [expletive] ugly [expletive] and I want to stab you to death and play around in your blood." She doesn't hear him. (Given time and a captive audience, there's a fascinating argue that she hears but doesn't respond, but we'll leave this out in the interest of brevity) She doesn't hear him because he doesn't really say it? Weak! She doesn't hear him because she's not really listening? Better, and much more foreboding. Also: She doesn't hear him because the bar [/culture] has created a constant deafening racket, with little chance for personal interaction? Nah, that'd be satire...and so heavy-handed!

The worse call is that Bateman is just a vain jerk, which doesn't say much about anything. (Not much call these days for a withering social critique of vain jerks.) The better call is that instead of vanity with no point, Bateman has a special kind of necessary vanity, very much required for a man who presents nothing else and can thus act as a man without a center (or "a soul"). The thing that scares the critics off, makes them verbally pull up the covers and tell themselves the horror isn't really happening (if this seems like a mean-spirited jibe, remember that claiming "it isn't really happening" is just what they're doing, only in more indignant intellectual terms), is maybe the newest thing Psycho offers, if satire isn't really new: the flipping of the accepted "logic" that people who are insane can't know it. PB knows it and why shouldn't he? He understands that he's not really there. If he didn't understand that, he wouldn't be dangerous. He'd even feel guilty over imagined but unperformed acts, which he distinctly does not. If Bateman doesn't perceive himself, what's the point? Psycho...not American, just Psycho, Hitchcock now, gains final perspective and social redemption by psychiatric diagnosis of Norman Bates, and this same analysis, even if it's only "That guy is nuts," and even if it's unspoken, is what finally lowers all movie psychos to understandable and diagnosable [and eventually, because of that, catchable and defeatable]. The society gains power because the psychiatrist, or any jerk on the street that realizes a guy's insane, has power (of comprehension and classification) over him. Bateman (his name an echo of Bates) is the only one who realizes he's not there, and that makes him the most powerful and the most dangerous, the most invisible. If there's no shrink to diagnose his problem, then it's not a legit psycho disease of, you know, bi-manic schizoneucronia, so how'd he get to be that way?

One (okay, L.A. Weekly) review says he's a combination of pure pop culture, a mixture of porn and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (both are seen on his television, though the printed Bateman, faithful to porn, prefers Body Double, a film less recognizable in short clip without Massacre's familiar and thus easily blamed iconography). It's a dangerous thing for a media outlet to say, that he is psycho because of too much porn and some movies he saw. He is these things (or, if you prefer, he is no things), if you must blame outwardly, because of society, not Tobe Hooper, and society is SOCIETY because it is made of repression of impulses, and impulses come from individuals, like PB. It puts things on a pleasantly grand scale: psychosis made in/made by America. God bless the USA!

Rating: A-

Reviewed by Matthew Abrams
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