Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 10: "American Psycho" by David Pretty

Happy Horror-ween, Psychos and Psychettes!

People with tattoos, Mohawks and piercings have always seemed more "normal" to me then self-obsessed business types with flawless hair, perfect tans, and Armani suits.  The original novel American Psycho and the subsequent film which followed in 2000, really took this concept to the high water mark.  Although the movie works disturbingly well on a superficial level, it also has a blast playing around with a veritable gold mine of social parody.

This particular trailer is quite unnerving, first setting the tone with Bateman's "Ed Gein" quote and then juxtaposing scenes of mayhem with the sunny melodies of "Wouldn't It Be Nice" by the Beach Boys:   

On the surface, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is the prototypical modern American male.  He's handsome, in flawless shape, impeccably dressed and society has crowned him a Master of the Universe.  The fact that he's barking mad doesn't seem to enter into consideration.

In fact his behavior seems perfectly in step with his surroundings.  Bateman and his business proteges are constantly trying to undermine one another.  Despite doing no quantifiable work, they feel superior to most plebes and entitled to special treatment.  Their relationships are illusory, transient and self-serving.

Every time one of them manages to trump the others with a new toy or unattainable restaurant reservation, you can just see their collective hackles rise despite all of the fake smiles.  The only difference is that Bateman parleys all of his frustration with chasing the consumerist dragon into becoming a first-rank serial murderer.  

After Patrick's new business card is humbled by a co-worker, he viciously kills a homeless man and his dog.  When rival/doppelganger Paul (Jared Leto) scores a big contract then mistakes Patrick for an interchangeable co-worker, he ends up on the receiving end of an axe.   Even as a nosy detective starts sniffing around, Bateman steps up his game and starts torturing and murdering prostitutes.  Soon he's dropping bodies with such frequency that you can't help but suspect that he wants to be caught.

Which brings me to the most fascinating thing about American Psycho.  Despite broadcasting his peccadilloes from the rooftops, the elevated status foisted upon Bateman seems to have given him carte blanche to do whatever he wants without recompense.  The movie's observations about the pointless and maddening pursuits of consumer goods may be fascinating, but it's the concept of the teflon CEO that makes the film particularly relevant today.  Although set in the Eighties, Bateman's invisibility evokes thoughts of the corporate criminals who dissected the economy in 2008 without any supervision or repercussions.

Since the original novel was lambasted (somewhat justifiably) by women's groups as violent and misogynistic it made tremendous sense to assign directing duties to a woman.  Mary Harron does a masterful job interpreting the controversial original source material.  She manages to keep all of the original novel's satiric social barbs intact while distilling the sometimes-repellent subject matter down to something filmable.  Despite having to jettison a lot of the novel's crazier sequences, it's still pretty shocking when Cara Seymour as Christie attempts to flee from a completely naked, blood-spattered, chainsaw-wielding Bateman

After having tremendous success capturing the 60's in I Shot Any Warhol, Harron brings a similar attention to detail to American Psycho.  Indeed, the ship-in-a-bottle-sized portable phones, suspenders and tortoiseshell glasses really helps to evoke the Gordon Gecko "greed is good" era.  The excellent use of lighting and pristine sets really suggests an artifice over everything: business meetings, training regimens and posh restaurants all seem sterile and rarefied.  Everything is just a little too perfect.         

Just like corporate, overproduced music that makes up the film's excellent soundtrack.  Bateman, a passionate fan of Huey Lewis and the News, Whitney Houston and Phil Collins, likes his music safe and soulless.  It's just another part of his facade.  In addition to grounding the film firmly in the "Me" decade, these completely vapid tunes are used ironically to great effect.  Suffice to say that whenever Patrick starts to wax philosophically about the deeper meaning of "Sussudio" we know the shit's about to hit the fan. 
At times the film seems a tad disjointed and characters act detached from one another, but this just adds to the thematic underlay of self-absorption and social disconnect.  No-one in interested in conversing with anyone else, they just want to monologue about themselves.  Evelyn (Reece Witherspoon) obliviously yammers on about wedding plans even while her fiance Patrick openly talks about his need to "engage in homicidal behavior on a massive scale".  When Bateman tells a girl at a club that he's into "murders and executions", she interprets this as "mergers and acquisitions".  Even when he confesses everything in a rambling voicemail to his lawyer, his intended audience just thinks it's a joke.

Christian Bale was a relative unknown at the time, but his showing in American Psycho deservedly propelled him into the limelight.  Supposedly Bale partially based his performance on a talk show appearance by Tom Cruise in which the superstar exhibited "this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes."  Indeed the illusion he creates here is seamless.  For the duration of the film's run time, you believe that he is Bateman.  There isn't a detectable ounce of fear or pretension in his performance.     

When he narrates the minutia of his daily workout regimen you hear the conviction in his delivery.  When you see him frenetically doing stomach crunches with Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre frolicking in the background, you see the intensity.  When he's hacking away at a victim with an axe, his rage is genuine.

But when he's forced to abandon the fraudulent smiles and smarmy deliveries in lieu of full-blown lunacy, he's equally at home.  His final late-night rampage and the resulting phone confession is pure genius.  Notwithstanding the grisly subject matter, I'd venture to say that his performance is Oscar-worthy.

He's backed up by some truly talented support.  Reece Witherspoon, playing a variation of Elle from Legally Blonde, is perfectly oblivious.  Willem Defoe is cheekily annoying as detective Donald Kimball.  Jared Leto does a great job playing Patrick's condescending mirror-image.  Finally a young Chloë Sevigny is tremendous as Bateman's pining secretary Jean.  She's able to convey such naive, earnest empathy that her reprieve is completely feasible.

American Psycho is a modern classic.  Although it's perfectly acceptable as an intense horror picture on a superficial level, viewers can also have a great time mining for a wealth of clever subtext.  It's all about the layers.

Just like Patrick Bateman.             
Tilt: up.

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