American Psycho (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Sight unseen (except by attendees at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie premiered), Mary Harron's American Psycho has already become one of the most controversial motion pictures of the year (making it a "must see" for some film-goers). The reason is twofold. The source material for the Mary Harron/Guinevere Turner screenplay is Bret Easton Ellis' incendiary novel, which, upon its publication, was the source of equal parts praise and vilification. Secondly, there is the now-infamous "NC-17" controversy surrounding the film. Like the recently released Black and White, American Psycho was initially slapped with the MPAA's Kiss of Death. Only after re-editing was the classification reduced to the commercially acceptable "R".

Ironically, it can be argued that the movie deserved (and, in fact, still deserves) the "NC-17", although not for the reasons cited by the MPAA. Sexually, there's nothing here that warrants such a prohibitive rating - but, when it comes to violence, that's another matter. This is a bloody, grotesque, and often graphic motion picture. Had the MPAA awarded the "NC-17" for this reason, their logic might have made some sense. But because it was handed out for a non-explicit sexual threesome, the situation once again points to the MPAA as a reactionary organization that embraces gore but abhors sex.

To the delight of Sundance crowds, director Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) publicly stated that she would not alter a frame of the print to affect a classification change, but her brave declaration didn't last long once away from the high altitude of Park City. Having seen both versions of American Psycho, I can state that there's not much difference (another factor that makes the MPAA's demands curious). In both editions, American Psycho is an effectively barbed satire of American morals and values, a blacker-than-black comedy that elicits equal parts horror and laughter.

First and foremost, the movie takes a scathing look at the "me first" mentality of the mid-to-late-'80s. In fact, one of the reasons the film works so well is because of a take no prisoners attitude. We are given a gallery of despicable, amoral characters to observe. Anyone who identifies with them needs to consider seeking immediate psychiatric help. The most disturbing of them is Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a successful, wealthy commodities broker who believes himself to be untouchable and perhaps indestructible. Not content to destroy lives in the conventional manner embraced by his colleagues, Patrick has taken things one step further and become a serial killer. In fact, he has murdered so many times that he is losing track of the body count.

A crucial aspect of the movie's effective satire is the performance of Christian Bale, whose dead-on, straight man approach to the role gives American Psycho its punch. Looking, and at times acting, like Tom Cruise in Magnolia, Bale's cold, charismatic, misogynist turn as the 27 year old psycho is riveting. The supporting cast contains a number of familiar names - Reese Witherspoon as Patrick's superficial fiancée, Evelyn; Chloe Sevigny as his faithful secretary, Jean; and Willem Dafoe as a police detective.

In a voiceover, Patrick informs us that "There is no real me. I simply am not there." He sees himself as a facade - a perfectly sculpted body encompassing a black hole where his soul and conscience should be. "I have all the characteristics of a human being but not one discernible emotion except greed and disgust." He's a huge fan of pop music. Some of the film's creepiest and funniest scenes occur when he plays Huey Lewis and the News, Phil Collins, and Genesis as foreplay to violence. During sex, he spends as much time preening in front of a mirror as he does playing with the girl (or girls) he's with. When introducing himself at nightclubs, he claims to be in "murders and executions" not "mergers and acquisitions." And the people he uses that line with think it's funny.

The aspect of '80s culture that gets the most thorough drubbing is the one-upsmanship of the businessman over his fellows. Harron manifests this in a number of ways throughout American Psycho -- in fact, the theme permeates the film. One memorable scene has four men showing off their business cards, with each of them trying to trump the others by presenting the nicest looking typeface or the most impressive card stock. Although this description may not sound amusing, the sequence is hilarious. It all comes down to execution. Harron captures the perfect tone for an enterprise like this and keeps things moving, with the momentum flagging only slightly during the final 15-20 minutes when psychological tension supplants black comedy.

In the recent tradition of movies like Fight Club and The Sixth Sense, American Psycho employs a surprise ending. There is enough ambiguity about the last act revelations that one can interpret them in more than one way, but the most likely choice forces the entire movie to be re-interpreted through a different filter. In retrospect, the film holds together no matter which approach you accept, and the seams never show. American Psycho may be controversial (and some people will undoubtedly be shocked and repulsed by the violence), but it represents one of the most daring, inventive, and invigorating movies to reach the screen during the dreary first half of 2000.

American Psycho (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2000-04-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1