Filmlab: Best finance movies of all time – 6. American Psycho
In the rush to denounce the graphic violence in Brett Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho upon its publication in 1991, many people missed the joke. Ostensibly the confession of Patrick Bateman – a twenty-something Wall Street broker with ridiculous amounts of money, an encyclopaedic knowledge of GQ etiquette and a proclivity for DIY mutilation – it read more like Edith Wharton with a nail gun than the sick, pornographic tale many were claiming it to be. In his desire to fit into the greed-is-good social structure of 1980s America, Bateman’s literal cut-throat techniques satirised the obsessive materialism and narcissism of this culture, and exposed in its most grotesque and hideous form the ruthless savagery lurking beneath the Armani-suited exterior and Chanel-scented veneer of the economic and social elite. If Bateman was sick, so was society; a rotting, festering wound covered up by a designer Band-Aid.
Released nine years later, Mary Harron’s film version was similarly in danger of being misunderstood – even by the studio, which quickly tried to franchise it with a straight-to-DVD slasher movie sequel that bore no relation to the satirically rich feminist black comedy that Harron had made. Starring Christian Bale as Bateman – a role he almost lost to Leonardo DiCaprio, but which subsequently fast-tracked him to his A-list-securing part as the similar-sounding Batman (another rich and violent psycho) – the film is even more attuned than the book to the pathological nature of the financial world.
Keeping most of the lurid sex and violence of Ellis’s text off-screen, Harron’s adaptation presents Bateman as a monster struggling to maintain his mask of sanity and normality, but the key is the way it playfully exposes his dorkiness as much as his darkness. As he goes through his morning exercise and vanity routine (a facial ice-pack to reduce the puffiness of his skin, a thousand stomach crunches, a shower with a “water-activated gel cleanser” – shower gel, in other words…) his voiceover narration tells us there exists an idea of Patrick Bateman but there is no real Patrick Bateman to speak of – cold-sounding words neatly offset by the ludicrousness of the actions underpinning them.
That Bateman feels nothing and has no real identity of his own is a defect shared by the other Wall Street sharks, all of whom have the same job title on their business cards (“Vice President”) and are so superficial they’re virtually interchangeable. As they sit around ridiculously appointed restaurants, marvelling at the mud soup and the charcoal arugula on offer on the menu while silently panicking over the position of their tables and their ongoing inability to get reservations “at Dorsia”, they repeatedly misidentify those in their own social circle. Indeed, it’s part of the joke of the film that Bateman’s own loss of control over his obsessively maintained façade is catalysed by something as random and trivial as a colleague with a slightly better business card confusing him with yet another broker who just happens to share Bateman’s penchant for Valentino suits and Oliver Peoples glasses (though Bateman – in his own estimation – does have a “slightly better” haircut).
What’s great about Harron’s presentation of all this in the film is that it becomes amusingly symbolic of the innate instability of the markets and the lies required to ensure that such ever-present volatility is kept at bay. This is all encoded in Bateman’s non-ironic love of 1980s pop titans Huey Lewis and the News, Whitney Houston and Genesis. In the lengthy discourses on each that Bateman delivers (with a goofy little dance) before committing his most extreme acts of violence, he identifies Huey’s Hip to Be Square as a rallying cry about “the pleasures of conformity and the importance of following trends”, Whitney’s The Greatest Love of All as a treatise on the need to empathise with oneself in a world in which “it’s impossible to empathise with others”, and the Phil Collins-penned Genesis hit Invisible Touch as “an epic meditation on intangibility” – the perfect soundtrack, in other words, for an impersonal industry that quantifies everything, disregards everyone and produces nothing but abstract wealth.
Viewed in this way, Bateman’s unravelling becomes a reflection of the financial crashes that periodically plunge the world into chaos, exposing capitalism’s true nature for all to see. Whether people want to see is another matter. When Bateman tells a model that he’s into “murders and executions” she asks him if he enjoys it, thinking he works in “mergers and acquisitions”. When his paranoid delusions get completely out of hand and result in a murderous rampage, he confesses all, only for no one to believe him. How much of what has unfurled in the film is fantasy and how much is reality is, of course, kept deliberately ambiguous, but Bateman’s epiphany – that there’s to be no punishment for any of his actions, that his desire to inflict pain on others will not only continue, but be allowed to continue – says as much about the mentality of financial industry as it exists today as it did the 1980s. The sickness of the joke is that it’s always on us.
Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, 24 April 2014