A lot of the world has become stranger than fiction of late. Pandemic fiction is being reviewed as almost prophetic when, previously, many were panned for their lack of “realism.” IDIOCRACY has slowly grown awkwardly accurate, down to the canned air that now legitimately exists in hyper-polluted cities. On its 20th anniversary, it’s time to revisit perhaps the most disturbing of the films that have become retroactive reality: the coal black humored masterwork, AMERICAN PSYCHO.
Released on this day in 2000 as an adaptation of the infinitely more explicit and criticized novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, AMERICAN PSYCHO sought to satirize the sociopathic tendencies of white collar yuppies via over the top, purposeful flanderization and hyperviolence ranging from the repeated torture of sex workers, animal torment, wonton cruelty, and the most infamous use of Huey Lewis And The News ever put on film.
In the hands of screenwriters Guinevere Turner and Mary Harron (who also directed), AMERICAN PSYCHO was every bit as controversial as its progenitor, garnering widespread critique for the in-your-face gore and raising the hackles of more than a few Wall Street professionals who doth protested too much.
AMERICAN PYSCHO‘s world was populated by men who were, at best, vapid versions of Michelangelo’s David with a brilliant, tacky as all hell packaging covering nothing much underneath—or, as (possibly) in the case of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), what lay in the shadows was less much less than human. Trust fund people that didn’t earn their positions, that got jobs because daddy owned the company, that all but gangbang over restaurants with food so disgustingly awful that it’s a mercy the portions are so small.
Meanwhile, the women are basically blow up dolls, with Bateman’s fiancée (played by Reese Witherspoon) being hopped up on at least two drugs at any one time and with about as much intelligence as a naked mole rat (not to offend naked mole rats). His colleagues’ temporary or permanent partners aren’t much better off, some being actively abused and suicidal, smiling in public and numbing themselves into oblivion in private. It’s shocking, if not bleakly funny. It makes you feel better about yourself, and maybe the world around you. Yeah people suck but holy shit no way they actually suck that bad. Right?
There was already some element of reality put into the film at the time. Harron revealed in a 2009 interview that Bale had chosen a real person as the basis for his portrayal of Patrick Bateman: Tom Cruise. Watching the megastar on David Letterman, Bale noted that Cruise possessed, “this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes” and was adamant in bringing this soulless husk quality to his character.
It was revelatory back then, and in fact the psychology and pathology of sociopaths in highly functioning/successful positions was studied as a partial result of the implications raised in AMERICAN PSYCHO. But, in 2020, we don’t have to speculate and pour through scientific journals anymore. We just have to turn on our TV.
It’s hard to look at the current state of the United States government as anything but full of the exact people who were meant as parody and caricature in AMERICAN PSYCHO. It’s jarring, alarming, and adds an uncomfortable tingle up your spine as you review Harron’s film 20 years later and can almost squint your eyes a little and see Jared Kushner in the background, with his lifeless shark eyes, and his father-in-law with all the false congeniality and unhinged ramblings so widely utilized by Patrick Bateman throughout.
The idea of someone calmly, full of privilege and certainty of their power and position, telling a woman “you’re a fucking ugly bitch. I want to stab you to death, and then play around with your blood” was once over the top. Laughable. An absurdity. Now? Not so much. There has been horrific bile spewed out of so many mouths over the years now that it’s hard to not imagine certain persons seeing AMERICAN PSYCHO and not getting the joke. Not because the joke is subtle, but because to them there is no joke, just truth—relatable figures in outdated suits.
It should be impossible to be shittier than Patrick Bateman, he is Quixotic in the darkest possible way, but even Patrick Bateman managed to only say the quiet part out loud sometimes. Even Patrick Bateman chose to control his impulses at certain times, and in fact, perhaps that’s the most disquieting aspect of viewing this film 20 years hence; compared to what we’re looking at every day, Patrick Bateman almost seems like a saner alternative.
Tags: 1980s, 2000, Andrzej Sekula, Bret Easton Ellis, Cara Seymour, Chloë Sevigny, Christian Bale, Guinevere Turner, Huey Lewis And The News, Jared Leto, John Cale, Josh Lucas, Justin Theroux, Mary Harron, Matt Ross, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, Wall Street, Willem Dafoe