As the sugary sounds of Phil Collins' "Sussudio" blare in the
background, a man has rough, sweaty sex with not one, but two women.
It's a common male fantasy brought to life, but the man is less
interested in the sex act than himself, his gaze fixed on himself in the
mirror as he flexes his muscles while thrusting away. Now, can anyone
imagine Leonardo DiCaprio in this role?
Neither can I, especially not after seeing Christian Bale so
effortlessly pull off this scene as the title character in
_American_Psycho_, a part that at one point been offered to--and very
nearly been accepted by--the golden boy of _Titanic_. This adaptation of
Bret Easton Ellis' controversial novel of sex and serial murder in the
image-obsessed '80s would be absolutely unthinkable without Bale, who is
a stunning revelation as the social status-minded sociopath. It is also
difficult to imagine the film being as wickedly satirical--while
genuinely disturbing--as it is had it not been made by
director/co-scripter Mary Harron.
The notorious reputation of _American_Psycho_ the novel comes from its
extremely graphic depictions of violence, a point with which Harron has
cheeky fun from frame one. As the credits unspool on a white background,
drops of a red liquid fall across the screen, followed by the image of a
knife slicing in the air. But then it's revealed that the knife is
cutting meat (not of the human variety), which is then placed on top of a
plate sprinkled with the previously seen red sauce, making one of those
insanely artistic dishes served at swank gourmet dining establishments.
The film's tone is further set by the formal introduction to the
_Psycho_ of the title, Wall Street hotshot Patrick Bateman (Bale).
Patrick narrates his typical morning routine, which is not unlike most
people's--get up, exercise, shower. The difference is how his attention
to hygiene borders on obsessive narcissism, going through a veritable
laundry list of products in the shower and even more than that for a
post-shower facial treatment. It's overkill by most people's standards,
but Patrick's unironic, matter-of-fact narration makes it clear that it
couldn't be a more natural part of taking care of himself. In fact, the
names of the products Patrick uses is the most specific information given
about him; no clear background is ever established--but then perhaps all
is said in one revealing comment in this opening voiceover: "There is no
Like Patrick's waking rituals, Bale's vocal performance seems a bit
much, at least at the beginning. The British actor adopts not just than
an American accent for this role, but also the perfectly enunciated and
overwrought cadences of a TV announcer. But as the film goes on, his
speech proves to be in perfect alignment with the film as a whole. This
is not necessarily because _American_Psycho_ grows more outrageous--and,
it could be easily said, over the top--as it progresses (and it does),
but because it is a double-edged reflection of the film's deeper concerns
about identity and conformity. On one hand, to make oneself sound more
bombastically important is an attempt to stand out from the crowd in the
"Me" decade; on another, in sounding so self-important, Patrick actually
makes himself that much more like his preppy peers, in essence defeating
the whole purpose.
There is one characteristic of Patrick Bateman that distinguishes him
from the rest of his power suit-sporting kind, and that's his pesky habit
of slicing and dicing people. Unlike Ellis, whose novel lingered on
every last grisly detail, Harron doesn't show more than she has to; she
leaves most of the action to the imagination, opting for shots of blood
splattering on Patrick instead of those of blades tearing into flesh.
The technique serves its purpose; it makes the killings more disturbing
while not being so harsh as to steal the focus away from real point,
which is satire.
The surface satire in the script by Harron and Guinevere Turner (who
also appears in a small role) is fairly facile; much of the humor derives
from Patrick and his peers' fascination with status symbols. But Harron
and Turner go about it in an efficient, creative, and very funny way; the
absurdity of their pursuits is perfectly and inventively captured by a
scene where Patrick and co-workers engage try to outdo each other's slick
business cards. (The cards themselves are indicative of Harron's fine
attention to detail; another witty touch I enjoyed are the overdone theme
menus for the fancy restaurants.)
Such broad strokes threaten to make _American_Psycho_ cartoony, but
Harron achieves compensation in reality through her actors. Providing
effectively earnest counterbalance are Willem Dafoe as a policeman
investigating the disappearance of one of Patrick's victims, and a trio
of actresses playing the film's comparatively more grounded female
characters: Cara Seymour as a prostitute whom Patrick employs, Reese
Witherspoon as Patrick's high-maintenance fiancée, and the
ever-impressive Chloë Sevigny as Patrick's sweet and devoted secretary.
There's no denying, however, that the film belongs to Bale, who handles
the tricky task of playing a character as an exaggeration yet not a
caricature. Patrick's hyped-up eccentricities--such as his pre-murder
pontifications on the pop songs he uses as background music--are indeed
comical, and Bale milks them for every sick laugh they're worth (which is
plenty). Yet there's never anything inherently funny about the character
himself; he's a psychotic murderer, and Bale (and Harron) doesn't
sugarcoat Patrick's murderous rages. In fact, Bale goes the extra mile
and infuses him with an almost sad desperation--for what, exactly, is
left for the audience to decide. His repellent actions could easily be
just a sick way to grab more attention for himself (he doesn't do too
discreet a job of hiding his guilt during the cop's interrogations); they
could be read as a dementedly cathartic release for his frustrations;
they could be an interchangeable nobody's extreme attempt to become a
unique somebody. Whatever way, Bale's achievement is in suggesting far
more dimensions than his character would ever admit to having.
As Patrick's mind increasingly unravels, so does the film to an extent;
the final act lacks some of the urgency and bite of the first two thirds.
What it does maintain, and even enhance, is the atmosphere of dread that
always lingered beneath the surface. Given how unsettling the film's
ultimate effect is, it almost seems inappropriate to call
_American_Psycho_ "enjoyable," but most of this wild and perverse trip
can easily be classified as being so.