Dir: Mary Harron. Canada/USA. 2000. 104 mins
US Dist: Lions Gate Films. Int'l Sales: Lions Gate. Scr: Mary Harron, Guinevere Turner. Prods: Edward R. Pressman, Chris Hanley, Christian Halsey Solomon. Exec Prods: Michael Paseornek, Jeff Sackman, Joe Drake. DoP: Andrzej Sekula. Prod Des: Gideon Ponte. Main Cast: Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, Chloe Sevigny.
It is difficult to imagine a book arriving on the big screen with quite as much advance baggage as American Psycho. Some of the more horrifically graphic incidents in Brett Easton Ellis' cult novel continue to haunt readers to this day. And then there was the whole back-story concerning Leonardo DiCaprio's attachment to the project at the height of his Titanic glory before he quickly bowed out in a blaze of publicity.
Now that writer-director Mary Harron herself has been finally allowed to speak, with her original choice of actor for the serial psychopath, much of that pre-release controversy is liable to quickly evaporate. For all the blood-splatter and monstrous mutilations that are suggestively conveyed in the film, the interpretation is played mainly for self-conscious laughs. Indeed, the only objections raised by the US censors, even at a time when screen violence is such a hot-button topic, concerned an hilariously over-the-top sex scene involving Christian Bale and two prostitutes. Stripped of much of its original shock value, American Psycho has mutated into a much harder sell: a highly stylised and often surreal satire that takes a blunt hatchet to the monstrous excesses of eighties materialism and misogyny in general. But why the already despised Reagan era needed to be disembowelled all over again, especially after being so effectively butchered in Oliver Stone's Wall Street, remains the big question here.
American Psycho is the story of Patrick Bateman, a sharp-suited shark of a financier whose killer instincts in the business world spills into his private life. Enraged by the need to stay ahead of his Wall Street competitors and completely devoid of all feeling, Bateman embarks on a homicidal spree that involves all manner of killing instruments. As the carnage piles up, Harron takes her cue from Ellis book and lashes out at everything from embossed business cars and Phil Collins to dinner reservations. Even the violence becomes a carefully choreographed exercise, referencing movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and drawing parallels with the way that nouvelle cuisine is prepared. But by the end, however, the movie has no easy targets left. The final grim joke is that even as Bateman hacks his way through New York, those around him keep refusing to acknowledge his evil - even when he confesses. They would rather whitewash over his depravity than confront it. Such a theme might have applied just as tellingly to our own era as any other, had this American Psycho cut a little deeper still.