Has it really been nine years since novelist Bret Easton Ellis shook up the publishing world with his controversial American Psycho? Praised at the time by its publisher as 'fundamentally moral' and 'necessarily repellent,' Ellis' novel encountered widespread criticism for its violence against women and its dark view of the so-called greed decade. American Psycho, the novel, was long considered an unlikely film project, but times change, and American Psycho, the movie, invites filmgoers to see for themselves.
Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a 26-year-old Wall Street trader, riding the crest of money hunger that accompanied the economic boom of the late 1980s. Smart, handsome and stylish, Bateman is something of a wunderkind at work but, in his spare time, he thrives on designer suits, seeking out the next trendy restaurant, listening to Phil Collins and Huey Lewis on his state-of-the-art CD player and slicing up people-preferably women, and the odd homeless man-with a chainsaw.
Both the book, and now the movie, present Bateman as something of a latter-day Jekyll and Hyde figure, but the film, directed by Mary Harron of I Shot Andy Warhol repute, opts to emphasize the tale's social satire-arguably a clever move, in that the 1980s are a pretty easy target in retrospect. Certainly, costume designer Isis Mussenden makes the most of Bateman's padded-shoulder jackets and vivid power ties, while Andrzej Sekula's stunning cinematography captures a bright, vibrant Manhattan that belies the story's darker core.
Bale, with his boyish ruggedness, might at first strike one as an odd choice for Bateman, but his appearance dovetails perfectly with the notion that, in the downtown 1980s, style and attractiveness functioned less as a statement than as an equalizer. Indeed, one of the narrative's running gags is that Bateman is virtually indistinguishable from a co-worker named Paul Allen, played by Jared Leto, who is constantly mistaken for him. Like Ellis' novel, the screenplay by Harron and Guinevere Turner deftly underscores the doubts and contradictions of a swirl of characters. For all his swagger and brutality, Bateman can be reduced to jelly at the suspicion that Donald Trump's limousine is passing by, or that the latest downtown restaurant actually has its menu in braille.
If, in Harron and Turner's screenplay, there are dark patches of genuine humor and irony, there are also detours into B-movie horror terrain that are arguably less satisfying. An unpleasant scene in which Bateman wields a chainsaw on a pair of prostitutes inevitably conjures up Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Acting-wise, Reese Witherspoon is suitably perplexed as Bateman's fiance, and Chlo" Sevigny is touching as his loyal but clueless secretary. But American Psycho's most intriguing scenes pair Bale with Willem Dafoe, who plays an enigmatic, almost Dickensian NYPD detective named Donald Kimball. Polite to a T, and dutifully impressed by Bateman's office and designer clothes, Kimball seems to be toying with his prey, or is it the other way around? Nothing can be taken for granted in a story where someone drops the name of real-life psycho killer Ed Gein, only to be asked: 'Isn't he the maitre'd at Canal Bar?'
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