Christian Bale in American Psycho 2000
Photo Credit: United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

'American Psycho' Still Deserves Its Place in Film History

Twenty years on, Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner's adaptation is a perfect combination of humour, horror and satire.
21 April 2020, 8:45am

I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time writing about Bret Easton Ellis. A short interview for VICE in 2014 led to a follow-up interview for the TLS a few years later. I have visited the West Hollywood apartment block where he lives, reputedly also the home of reclusive entertainment reporter Nikki Finke, and I have met Todd the millennial boyfriend. In both cases I was struck by just how normal Ellis is. Of all the people I’ve interviewed, he was perhaps the most down to earth and agreeable. Ironic then, given his appetite for baiting the left and courting controversy as a gallant white man railing against the woke oppressor.

For what it’s worth (and I suspect very little at this point), my reading of the situation is that Ellis has confected a persona that he can’t abandon, having learned early on in his career that success depended on him causing offence. I might be wrong, but it’s frustrating because as a fan of the early work, it was just that lazy categorisation by the critical press that bothered me, implying as it did that the work suffered from a gratuitous transgression.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the film adaptation by director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner of Ellis’ best-known work, American Psycho. Along with the recent TV version of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, its one of my favourite screen adaptations – a feat of cinematic perfection, as morbid and terrifying as it is hilarious.

The takes about American Psycho, its film adaptation and whether either can claim to be "feminist" are seemingly endless, and I don’t want to add to that pile. But there is a personal dimension to why I came to write so much about it. I grew up around violence, and after many years of having to carefully manage my exposure to it on screen, Harron’s film came as some light relief. It’s an unorthodox interpretation, but something about Christian Bale’s cartoonish depiction of the male psyche allowed me to rise above the trauma, to see my own experiences through the lens of absurdity. Healing from this sort of thing takes many forms and is different for different people. For me, American Psycho – somewhat counter to reason and conventional logic – was helpful, by also placing the events into a wider context of masculinity, and its many crises.

This is why I always freely accepted the feminist defences of it, but also with the understanding that my experiences don’t represent the main, and that there are many people for whom the scenes of stomach-churning aggression are understandably too much to bear. If there are any helpful discussions still to be had around this subject, it’s whether or not we can accept that that offence doesn’t in every case discredit the work as a whole, particularly if it is useful for illustrating a larger point about the ills of individualism and ruthless ambition.

As Harron recently explained in an interview, “Bateman is the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with [American vulture capitalism], all the worst and craziest forces – obsession with surfaces, obsession with status, obsession with acquisition. And then the frustration and violence.” She goes on to state that while those tendencies are now associated with the 1980s, owing to the tenure of Reagan and Thatcher, “we’ve never really left that era.” This is difficult to deny. After all, Bateman is haunted by real-life characters such as Donald Trump and Tom Cruise, who at the time of writing were still only A-list celebrities, and not yet the president of the free world or the famous face of Scientology. Prophetic is a strong word, but it’s not altogether out of place here.

Ellis once told me that he regrets Leonardo DiCaprio not being cast as Patrick Bateman, after it was rumoured he had auditioned for the part. But Christian Bale’s bland perfection and beautiful, non-descript features make him the ideal candidate. We can safely assume too, that Bale’s own involvement wasn’t a case of mere fortuity or careerism, given that his stepmom is none other than the second-wave feminist, Gloria Steinem.

Unlike DiCaprio, Bale is as much a character actor as a leading man – someone who has been able to sustain a major Hollywood career and still appear on screen afresh with every new role. We know from that unflattering recording that Bale has anger problems, but this pales in comparison to DiCaprio’s flagrant careerism and ego. The problem with The Wolf of Wall Street, I always thought, is that DiCaprio himself is now too big of a character to convincingly portray that in someone else. What we know of his real love life makes any attempt to parody depraved men with no soul, almost impossible.

What’s crucial to understanding the role is that Bateman himself is an actor, a person with no preferences of taste or passion. Like Bale, he’s a sponge, and the two are wedded perfectly. Part of what I admire so much in the book is Ellis’ commitment to parody, and his ability to resist the temptation to break character and interject with his own voice. Whatever you think of the book, it’s a gesture we can all appreciate, particularly when we consider it against the backdrop of The Male Author, who in all his infinite wisdom has been boring us for centuries with the minutiae of his intellect and libido. Much more of an entertainer than an auteur, I’ve always admired Ellis’ humility of intellect and modest ambition in simply wanting to make us all smirk, rather than bash us around the head with his own profundity.

In this sense we can easily understand how Harron and Turner would have been drawn to the book. American Psycho is given over wholly to this absurd character and his internal monologue, and the screenwriter, director and leading actor commit to that in the filming. Even when Bateman comes to the realisation of his own psychopathy, the emotion is synthetic and rehearsed. A true psychopath mimicking the responses he’s seen in other people. To the very end, it’s a hilarious indictment of America and late capitalism’s insincere proportions.

Perhaps Reese Witherspoon and Chloe Sevigny’s characters are selling women out. Stereotypes of the fawning secretary and nagging girlfriend don’t fly in quite the same way as they used to as we’ve developed more sympathy and understanding of the social and economic drivers behind women’s conformity. But hey, it’s 20 years old and if that’s the worst of its crimes then I’m willing to forgive them. Both women, in their respective roles, play them well. Since Election, Witherspoon has elevated the busybody stock character to new heights, and her ability to perform infinite self-involvement is the perfect device for exposing how so much unhinged behaviour still flies under the radar of modern society.

All of which is to say that from where I’m standing, American Psycho still deserves its place in the pantheon of Hollywood filmmaking at a time when so many sentimental pictures are being rendered grim by their involvement with Weinstein, Allen and all the rest of them. American Psycho is salvaged from the long shadow extending from Ellis’ childish outbursts, thanks to Turner and Harron’s involvement and their ability to perfectly execute its complex of differing forces – humour, horror, satire and, ultimately, a deep sadness for the dehumanising effects of our beloved system.