Friday, September 24, 2010

Movie Blurb: Mary Harron's American Psycho (2000)

"Inside... inside..."
"But inside doesn't matter"

That second line is spoken by Patrick Bateman's narration near the end of the film American Psycho, adapted from the novel by Brett Easton Ellis.  It brings to a fine point what much of the subject matter has been leading to: when you fully become a conformist in a close-knit (or not so close-knit) society that favors the appearance of things, the surface, who cares what's under?  Ellis' book emphasizes this further; the film makes a big point about how Bateman, and by proxy Paul Allen, the man he kills with an axe, is mistaken for other people he works with.  And why not?  Like characters on the TV show Jersey Shore you have to hear them speak- and even then it's a little difficult- to discern who is who, with the slick black hair, fine suits from big designers, trim physique and glasses.

I mention this as at the time it came out people questioned whether Patrick Bateman, a broker of some kind who works at Wall Street at Pierce & Pierce (as he so eagerly tells two hookers in his apartment), really does everything we see him do in the film.  There are clues as to suggest perhaps that he didn't do any of it, that at most he's guilty of having lots of duct-tape and chainsaws in his closets and has an affair with a pill-popper girl.  Or, that he did it all, and the world is operating on some Luis Bunuel-esque style where up is down and black is white and ATM's ask to feed them stray cats.  I think it's somewhere in the middle: by the time it gets to a big over-the-top action movie climax where Bateman gets in a police stand-off and is chased by a helicopter, it is all in his stress-laden mind.  But everything else... it's at least somewhat, frighteningly, plausible.

Of course if one reads the book it will be even more, by about a hundred times, more disturbing than the film itself.  Indeed there could only be a "tame" version of a movie based off the book, as any real close approximation of the book would be not only NC-17, the MPAA would probably torch the fucker and send the film reels into the nearest river to drown (and without going too much into it, those who have read the book will know what I mean).  But what impresses me more seeing the film again, and I have seen it several times over the years since it was released ten years ago, is how close it does get to the spirit of the book, and how Harron makes her own trip into a Yuppie Serial Killer's madness of mayhem and killing.  It actually works that it was directed by a woman; it isn't apparent on the surface, and it shouldn't be, but there is an identification that the maker (and her co-writer and actor Guinerver Turner) makes, more-so than the book even, to the female characters.

They have (contrary to what the mysoginistic men talk about at one point) personalities, reactions, fears, desires, are drugged up, confused, shy, vulnerable, and ultimately, often, victims.  They can hold their own, or be destroyed, with and by Bateman, but they aren't cardboard cut-outs of women, at least as far as I can see.  This is a strength to the film, as well as Harron's strength at a visual style that compliments the subject matter.  It's a slick-looking film, with lighting that isn't usually too complicated, and it even has a sheen in certain points.  She also loves close-ups and the way that fluorescent lights in an office strike characters.  The restaurants, the clubs, Bateman's apartment (and Paul Allen's, which overlooks the park), and the workplace at Pierce & Pierce are precisely straightforward in appearance.  There is something oddly subversive about how slick everything looks.  What is inside?  There must be something.  Blood, I figure.

The film works better on repeat viewings, but not simply because of seeing a little deeper into what is or might be there.  It's a superbly entertaining picture, led by Christian Bale in a dynamic performance.  It may be my personal favorite; I feel compelled to write on like Bateman would praise Huey Lewis & the News, but it wouldn't do it justice.  Bale is so alive here he makes his Batman/Bruce Wayne performance look tame and almost dull by comparison (although I don't think his Wayne would be as good if not for previously playing Bateman), or, more appropriate comparison Dieter Dengler.  There's never a moment where there isn't something going on with him on screen, even (maybe especially) when he appears totally placid and calm.  It's those moments, of quiet reaction or innaction, how how carefully over-the-top (or just near the top) he brings Bateman for example when he's being questioned by Donald Kimble (a normal-but-weird Willem Dafoe).  For a character who says that inside doesn't matter he gives Bateman a level of humanity that is striking - or, rather, a seeming humanity masking the monster underneath.

One last question: if the book better than the movie, or visa-versa?  This question comes up with most adaptations.  It's a fair one to ask, especially for one that is so notorious as this one.  They work on similar-but-different levels just as well.  Ellis' story is an epic satire of the New York upper class in the guise of a vicious serial killer tome, akin to The Bonfire of the Vanities in its attack on the bourgeois and its indictment of society and the "stuff" that people accumulate and value.  It's also sick as fuck.  The film has this too, but in more subtle and indirect ways.  It works as comedy-horror, or as melodrama, or all at the same time.  It can be taught in classes on Feminism (if the professor won't shy away from the violence, which is necessary for the story), or on the horror film (there's a great 'meta' moment where Bateman does super-sit-ups to the ending of Texas Chain Saw Massacre).  Inside, the film matters.  It may even edge in right at #10 as one of the top 10 of the last decade. 

This confession has meant nothing.... ;)

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