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AMERICAN PSYCHO, 2000
Wealthy, young Wall Street yuppie Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) descends into a world of madness and murder as way to escape the banality of his everyday life in 1980s America.
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Christian Bale cut his teeth on a leading Hollywood role at a very early age in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987). However, rather than succumb to a tragic ending like many talented young actors have (River Phoenix for example). Bale’s acting career was fairly low-key up until American Psycho. Now a young man and unhindered by his past roles as a boy actor, Bale took up a challenging role as a fresh new talent. It would however be a tall order playing such a despicable and unsympathetic character that has zero empathy for others, yet who could still engage you for the entire movie without being a turn-off! Unsurprisingly Bale pulled it off in spades!
When we first meet Bale’s Bateman he describes his world to us and invites us in so we can see how terrible it is. Although he has a beautiful fiancÈ (Reese Witherspoon), friends (Justin Theroux) and money, Bateman is deeply unsatisfied with his life. The further into his world we go the more realize how sedated everything is, how distant everybody is from each other and how little people care about anything other than material possessions. This is brilliantly explored in the scene where Bateman tries to impress his work colleagues with his business card! The sheer obsession over the minute (and essentially pointless) details of each card is so ridiculous it’s funny. Bale shows how well he can handle comedy, playing the entire scene straight… because Bateman isn’t in on the joke!
Bale is brilliant in the scenes where he preps his victims just before the kill. Bateman has a fixation with setting the mood for murder with music! Bale gives us a personal review of each track and the artist in question with such ludicrous concentration; building suspense as we await to see what kind of violent act he’ll bestow on the unsuspecting victim. A real treat is the scene where Bale picks up two call girls and delivers his verdict on Phil Collins! The murder scene starts out cold and calculated and then descends into a hilarious carry on with Bale shooting his own pornographic video. Bateman completely objectifies the women, but rather than be offensive, the scene is laughing at the pathetic nature of Bateman acting out fantasy: “Sabrina don’t just stare at it…eat it!”
Bateman’s relationship to women in general is rather a confused one to say the least. Bateman’s fiancÈ Evelyn is largely the bane of his life, she’s completely unattached to him emotionally and yet continues to furiously plan their wedding and conduct an obvious affair with Bateman’s friend Bryce (Theroux). But as we can see very clearly this is completely normal in Bateman’s world and we empathize with him, as he is the only one who appears to be aware of how crazy it is. When he does go out with Jean it appears that she may be one woman he might develop an emotional connection with. For a change Bateman seems to be listening to her, they are almost talking intimately until Bateman cracks at the last minute. Bale’s acting is wonderful here playing out the sheer confusion in Bateman. He seems happy at first, then he becomes coldly distant and then effectively melts down asking Jean to leave. Perhaps things are so bad that he isn’t capable of having: “…a meaningful relationship with someone special”?
Another interesting relationship Bateman has is with his friend Luis (Matt Ross). While currently having an affair with Luis’ fiancÈ Courtney (Samantha Mathis) Bateman seems to be very uncomfortable when in the company of the clearly gay Luis. Again it’s wonderfully comic the way Bale handles Bateman’s deep discomfort with such a flamboyant customer; swiping away Luis’ hand: “…your comment was sufficient Luis!” In fact, Bateman almost kills Luis in the toilet but at the very last minute has a change of heart. One does wonder why Bateman never kills any of his friends or his fiancÈ, as they seem to be the most wretched characters in the film. Perhaps the fact that Luis quite enjoys Bateman’s hands around his neck disgusts him to the point that he just cannot go through with hit?
In truth American Psycho leaves a number of things open to interpretation. As we are watching a world through the eyes of Bale’s twisted psychopath you do have to question the reliability of what you are seeing. As Jean turns the pages of Bateman’s diary we see the obsessive drawings of all the murders and we start to question whether they actually happened. When Bateman confesses his murders to Carnes (Stephen Bogaert) it appears that he had seen Paul Allen after Bateman supposedly killed him with an axe. Perhaps this is true? Or perhaps Carnes had mistaken someone else for Paul Allen, hardly a rarity in Bateman’s world? The film never fully answers this and leaves you guessing but not confused. Quite skillfully, Bale shows how perplexed his character is too; his veins are almost popping out of his skull as he questions everything around him in a cold seat! Because we are sharing his experience, at the end he tells us in a sort of submission: “This confession has meant nothing!”
Whatever viewers make of the film’s resolution one cannot deny the fantastic central performance from Bale. He engages us for every moment of the film and it takes a strong actor to do this. While he plays the comic elements beautifully he simultaneously balances this with Bateman’s unflinching intensity. Bale’s physicality is also terrific, totally assuming the image of perfection that Bateman needed to have. American Psycho is a fantastic dark comedy/satire that illustrates a cynical portrait of a capitalist society gone horribly wrong. So wrong in fact that people are completely oblivious to their losses in humanity through the distraction of their materialistic gains. It’s ridiculous so ridiculously funny it’s…American Psycho!