The film adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ novel, American Psycho, shocked the world of cinema due to its faithful adaptation of Ellis’ gruesomely explicit prose. Twenty years on, Mary Harron’s cinematic take on the novel is a horror staple with fans employing gifs and memes of Patrick Bateman on a daily basis.
For those unfamiliar, American Psycho (2000) follows Patrick Bateman, played by Christian Bale, a young executive working on Wall Street. The film follows Patrick’s descent into madness as he is plagued by an uncontrollable bloodlust that soon grows to consume his entire life. Bereft of any empathy or emotion, Patrick struggles with his sense of reality and mental stability. His only outlet is torture and murder of which there is plenty. From business rivals, to sex workers, to complete strangers, Patrick is not particularly choosy with his victims as he tries desperately to rise in the ranks of the social ladder only to ultimately find the attempts futile.
Aside from the surface level horror film about a psycho murderer, American Psycho offers sociopolitical commentary as well. Which is to be expected seeing as it is a fairly faithful adaptation of its source material whose author is known for sociopolitical commentary. Interpretations on both the film and novel vary wildly, and I will admit that I am not the most insightful when it comes to films such as this, but American Psycho speaks to the greed and materialism of America at the time in such a clear way.
“American Psycho […] accurately reflects the social media era...”
The constant mention of the AIDS epidemic not only serves to place American Psycho during a period of the late 80s and early 90s, but it also seems to be a comment on the infectiousness of that aforementioned greed and materialism. At several points throughout the film, Patrick’s overarching narration slips into what could best be described as ad speak as if he is reading straight from a magazine hinting at the pervasiveness of marketing. Although these issues continue to be relevant today with the nonstop advertising and consumerism propelled by the advent of smart phones, much more relevant, I believe, is the sense of cynicism and nihilism that surrounds Patrick’s need for status and to fit in.
In one of the earlier scenes, Patrick, along with his fiancé Evelyn Williams (Reese Witherspoon) and Timothy Bryce (Justin Theroux), are attending a dinner party. At the upscale restaurant, they are joined by Luis Carruthers (Matt Ross) and his fiancé Courtney Rawlinson (Samantha Mathis) with whom Patrick is having an affair. During the course of the conversation, Courtney asks Vanden, Evelyn’s cousin, if she thinks “Soho is becoming too commercial” to which Bryce responds with “oh, who gives a rat’s ass?” before making a condescending comment on the genocide in Sri Lanka. Patrick contributes to the conversation with a list of “more important problems” which include such broad issues as “a return to traditional moral values” and “general social concern”.
The entire thing is dripping with satire and is obviously a critique on the shallow pseudo-concern that yuppies of the time would project without any actual intent to make a change. American Psycho, I feel, accurately reflects the social media era as well with the seemingly hollow acts of support such as signing online petitions or retweeting support tweets etc. referred to derisively as “slacktivism.” Critics of these movements accuse participants of vying for “internet points” or “clout” while not actually caring about the causes they claim to support.
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In keeping with the “internet clout” analogy, Patrick strives for status which is most accurately exemplified by his continued frustration about dinner reservations. At several points throughout American Psycho, Patrick expresses his dread over getting a bad table or not having a reservation. The Holy Grail that continues to elude Patrick is a reservation at a restaurant called Dorsia. Despite his continued attempts, Patrick is unable to secure a reservation. Ultimately, this results in one of the most famous murders from American Psycho though I’ll hold off on that for a bit.
Another scene that exemplifies Patrick’s anxiety towards his need for his peers’ approval is the famous business card scene. To Christian Bale’s credit, he plays the fuck out of this scene calling to mind such anxiety inducing scenarios as being next in line at the register but your mom still isn’t back from getting that thing she forgot. Wordy metaphors aside, Patrick’s anxiety is palpable as he not only doesn’t get the approval he so desperately seeks, but his friends also prefer the business card of his nemesis Paul Allen (Jared Leto).
The culmination of Patrick’s frustration is his luring and subsequent murder of Paul Allen. In one of the most famous scenes in all of horror, Patrick, fittingly, plays Huey Lewis and The News’ Hip to Be Square leading to one of the most quotable lines of the entire film,
I think their undisputed masterpiece is “Hip To Be Square”. A song so catchy, most people probably don’t listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends. It’s also a personal statement about the band itself. Hey, Paul!
Yes, it’s going to be hard for Paul Allen to get a reservation at Dorsia without a head, but, Patrick is right about another thing, people definitely should listen to the lyrics especially in the context of this film.
Taking a moment to dissect the lyrics of Hip To Be Square, we see hints of the same message. Huey mentions eating right and working out in the context of trend without regard for whether it’s good for him or not. All that matters is that it’s what’s “in” right now. It’s all about appearance and keeping up with the trends and it doesn’t really matter what’s on the inside. All of this mirrors the modern day issue of social media popularity where people’s external profiles do not always accurately reflect real life.
Patrick is also constantly comparing himself to others, case in point Paul Allen and the business card. He is disgusted by the idea of being considered in the same category as those he believes are beneath him i.e. Luis Carruthers. And he is engaged to a woman with whom he has nothing in common solely for the status that it brings him also known as “clout chasing.”
As American Psycho reaches its climax, Patrick has abandoned any hope for reaching that status to which he strives, and instead opts for self destruction in the form of his rampage and subsequent breakdown. He first tries to date his assistant Jean (Chloë Sevigny), who interestingly does not get a last name, which can be translated as his attempt to break out of the conformity trap in which he finds himself, only to be dragged back in by his urges.
When that doesn’t work, Patrick heads out into the night where his psychosis reaches a peak complete with ATMs asking to be fed stray cats and his handgun literally blowing up a police car. It’s clear that Patrick’s grip on reality has slipped and is now strangely intertwined with his fantasy life as many of us have also found ourselves consumed by social media at one point or another.
“[The film] mirrors the modern day issue of social media popularity where people’s external profiles do not always accurately reflect real life.“
Ok, so maybe the analogy is thin and perhaps all of the comparison’s don’t hold water, but the idea that Bret Eason Ellis and Mary Herron both presented still resonates today because this superficial obsession with popularity and status never went away. It simply moved into the virtual world. Perhaps one of the most resonant lines from the film is one Patrick gives to Evelyn on their way to the dinner with their friends. After mentioning that he hates his job, Evelyn inquires as to why he doesn’t simply quit. Patrick’s response is simple and outlines the entire thesis for the film, “Because I want to fit in.”
At the end of American Psycho, Patrick has confessed his crimes to his lawyer and meets him at an upscale club which he and his friends frequent. The lawyer believes the confession to be a joke, but more importantly doesn’t recognize Patrick and confuses him for another showing the little impact Patrick has on the lives of those around him. Defeated, Patrick sits with his friends who quip about President Reagan’s speech oblivious to their friend’s condition. If that’s not any random Twitter thread on any given day, I don’t know what is.
What are your thoughts on 20 years of American Psycho? Do you have any favorite memories? Or maybe some holes in my theory you want to poke at! Let us know on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, or the Nightmare on Film Street Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!