Mary Harron’s American Psycho is a merry-prankster nightmare — a cheerfully irreverent drawing-room slasher movie about a natty young Wall Street serial killer, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), who, for all his smug ruthlessness, is also the film’s anxious, cringing conscience. He’s a macho monster who’s all aquiver on the inside. Harron, in her second feature (after the galvanic I Shot Andy Warhol), has worked a kind of alchemy on Bret Easton Ellis’ infamous 1991 novel, which turned homicide into the ultimate blatant metaphor for yuppie heartlessness. The book was a manufactured scandal — a showboating catalog of brand names and body parts, all engineered to call attention to Ellis’ post-boomer, hate-chic ”audacity.” Harron eliminates most of the author’s graphic, nearly surgical grisliness, and the ugly currents of misogyny as well (Patrick’s delight in hacking up women may have been the book’s single deepest emotion). She stages the blood-spattered violence as stylized, tongue-in-cheek spectacle, complete with chain saws and gleaming axes, that’s as kicky and easy to watch as, say, the murders in the Scream films.
Funny, pungent, and weirdly gripping, American Psycho is a satire that feels like a hallucination; its tone of rambunctious, light-fingered malevolence is closer to late Bunuel, or the Kubrick of The Shining, than it is to Ellis. Yet Harron, if anything, is an even more devious provocateur than Ellis was. By treating the book as raw material for an exuberantly perverse exercise in ’80s nostalgia, she recasts the go-go years as a template for the casually brainwashing-consumer/fashion/image culture that emerged from them. She has made a movie that is really a parable of today.
Patrick, a 26-year-old mergers and acquisitions turk, has a bottomless expense account, a society fiancee (Reese Witherspoon), and a fetishistically luxe white-on-white designer apartment. But he’s a Hollow Man. He occupies a cool swank demimonde where everything, from dinner reservations to muscle tone, is a status symbol — a signifier of identity. Each night, he goes out to ridiculously expensive restaurants, where the waiters smirk with snobby delight as they describe specials like swordfish meatloaf with onion marmalade. On the job, Patrick and his fellow Masters of the Universe dress, style their hair, and interact with spooky uniformity. They’re like a cult of Tom Ripleys, so that the bosses (in one of the best gags) can scarcely tell them apart. Mutual one-upmanship, the more sneering the better, is their only currency.
Harron, working with gleeful precision, mythologizes the moment when America rediscovered the heady egomaniacal rush of conspicuous consumption. She revels in the decadent details — the pasha’s array of skin lotions that Patrick uses each morning, polishing his body like a vintage car; the hilariously nervous boardroom showdowns over who has the most extravagantly tasteful business card. Yet all of this would be didactic, and not very original, if the upshot were merely that greed isn’t good. American Psycho doesn’t simply observe Patrick — it sucks us into his upscale dementia. More than just corrupt, he’s living in a Matrix (like us). He’s so obsessed with taking his cues for what to wear, what to say, who to be from the outside that nothing in his existence is quite real to him. Well, one thing is: He brings people over to his apartment — a rival coworker, a date — and happily slaughters them, letting loose the wrath he feels at having to dance on a treadmill of falseness.
Christian Bale, who in movies like Velvet Goldmine has specialized in playing shrinking violets, here acts with a newly potent leading-man danger. As Patrick, he’s strapping and virile, like a hawkishly sinister Tom Cruise, and he lowers his voice to a radio DJ’s exaggerated masculine growl. It’s a fake voice laced with contempt, issuing from a fake stud. Yet there’s an ironic vulnerability to it, as if Patrick had upped the he-man corniness a notch to acknowledge his own shallowness. During the murders, or when he’s commencing a threesome with hookers, Patrick plays his favorite pop songs and discourses on why he loves them, and his soliloquies on Huey Lewis and the News’ ”Hip to be Square” or the oeuvre of Genesis are classics of bedazzled solipsism. The more a song justifies his empty, glossy existence, the more it leaves him in rapture.
After his coworker disappears, Patrick is questioned by a private eye (Willem Dafoe), and we feel protective of him — not because we like what he’s done, but because Bale lends such vivid, funny life to Patrick’s squirmy inadequacy. After a while, Patrick begins to fall apart, and the movie takes a leap into the surreal. The transition doesn’t entirely work; it’s confounding when it should be haunting. Still, the more Patrick becomes unglued, the more Bale’s performance grows in fevered power. He keeps Patrick lurching blindly toward humanity, until we see a self being born in a man who, paradoxically, was too selfish to have one.