Nothing about this one had made me want to watch it. The original novel had never struck me as a film-in-waiting and what's more, its author agrees. Bret Easton Ellis has said, "American Psycho was a book I didn't think needed to be turned into a movie." However it had also attracted enough media hysteria that for years it had filmmakers circling like flies around a toilet, with an ever-growing list of famous nearly-got-involveds.
In the end the gig went to Mary Harron (who?) and Christian Bale (Batman). Harron's a Canadian writer-director who lived in England for a while and dated Tony Blair, then moved to New York and joined its 1970s punk scene. There's an about-face. Her other movies include I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), so you can't say she's not interested in confronting feminist issues. I think she did well here. She took an aggressively un-cinematic book and made a film that's at once faithful, challenging and entertaining. I'm now curious about her other films.
Christian Bale was an even bigger surprise, though. Going into this, I think I'd had the wrong idea about him. He's no fun in the Batman films, but that's just being faithful to the character, and of course we've all read about his bad-tempered outburst on the set of Terminator: Salvation. Here though he's awesome. No, he's more than that. This is one of the most fascinating performances of the year, taking an extreme character to some wild and often very funny places. The thing about Patrick Bateman of course is that he's the ultimate shallow narcissist, the kind of guy who'll get driven to homicidal rage by a colleague having a better business card than him. If he's having a threesome with two prostitutes, what gives him the biggest hard-on is admiring himself in the mirror. Sounds like a fun character to play? Hell, yeah. Bale is clearly having a ball, yet at the same time he's taking the character seriously and adding all kinds of unexpected layers. Apparently he spent months working out and doing three hours a day with a trainer to achieve the correct Patrick Bateman physique, while I love some of the quotes I've found on how he prepared for the role.
He spoke to Harron on the phone about "how Martian-like Patrick Bateman was, how he was looking at the world like somebody from another planet, watching what people did and trying to work out the right way to behave". He also saw Tom Cruise on David Letterman's talk show and was struck by the movie star's "very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes." Having seen the film, I know exactly what he means. Bale's Bateman sometimes does a Concerned Virtuous Face. It's the face of a shallow man pretending to be deep. It's hysterical.
Anyway, Bale is the film. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but not by much. Everything we see and hear is filtered through his self-absorbed eyes, just as in the novel. Bret Easton Ellis's chosen voice sometimes made the book a bit repetitive, but here we have a bit more distance and, frankly, Christian Bale is more fun. A limp performance in the title role would have made this a worthless film, but fortunately it's fascinating. What does Bateman get out of reciting all that memorised music journalist criticism, for instance?
I liked the other actors too, though. Most of them are as empty as him. Seeing these guys on Wall Street... suddenly the global financial crisis makes perfect sense. However every so often you'll see an actor bringing something unexpected to a role, such as Willem Dafoe's private detective or Chloe Sevigny's sweet and genuine Jean. Sevigny scared me, because I didn't want anything to happen to her. For me this was a slight element of discord in the film, because I think we're seeing these people more clearly than Bateman does himself. Maybe I'm just saying that because I've read the novel, but I think I assumed everything was going to be filtered through his mindset and I was a little surprised when, occasionally, we step slightly outside it.
The sex and violence aren't as bad as I'd expected, by the way. The book was trying harder to be gross. Don't show this to your grandmother, but it's also not a gore film.
What makes the film interesting of course is what it's saying. It's not really about the killings. In fact both the book and the film are trying to leave a similar question mark about whether they really happened at all, or whether they only took place in Patrick Bateman's disturbed mind. (I never really buy those, but I can respect the attempt in an abstract way.) It's also not just about satirising 1980s yuppies, although that's always good for a laugh. No, Ellis has said that the original book came from a dark, personal place at a time when he felt he was "slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself, but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself." He was addressing his own isolation and alienation. That's very much here too. (The dialogue's all taken from the novel pretty much verbatim.) It's got themes of facelessness, mistaken identity and people being interchangeable. No one ever listens to anyone else, even when it's Bateman confessing to murder.
Random facts I got from browsing the internet:
There's a bad but almost entirely unrelated sequel, American Psycho 2.
Sevigny performs unsimulated fellatio in a 2003 arthouse film, The Brown Bunny.
Overall, this is a much better film than you'd assume. Whether or not someone had read Ellis's novel, I wouldn't expect them to be in a hurry to see this movie. I get it. I had preconceptions too. Of course now I'm impressed by how Harron went about her adaptation, but on the other hand her fidelity means that some objections to the novel will carry over to the film too. What we're studying here is an hour and a half of shallow, self-obsessed, empty materialism. That's the point. That's what Patrick Bateman is. However it seems a safe bet that some viewers will be repelled, or even eventually bored. Speaking for myself though, I thought it was a fascinating piece of work I'd particularly recommend to anyone interested in the process of adaptation, while in addition I'm planning on checking out more from Mary Harron and Christian Bale. It has integrity.
From Bateman to Batman. Heh.