Sunday, October 23, 2011

October 22nd: American Psycho (2000)

27-year-old Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a successful Wall Street businessman, working for his father's firm Pierce and Pierce. He spends much of his free time at restaurants and bars with fellow yuppies Timothy Bryce (Justin Theroux), David Van Patten (Bill Sage), and Craig McDermott (Josh Lucas), lives in a luxury apartment, loves '80s pop music and is engaged to socialite Evelyn Williams (Reese Witherspoon), but is more attracted to his comely secretary Jean (Chloe Sevigny).
Unbeknownst to any, Patrick wrestles with his inner psychopathic impulses, commenting to himself on his utter lack of emotions and his desire to kill, yet he's managed to create a mask of sanity for himself, out of his desire to fit in and succeed. When he is upstaged by co-worker Paul Allen (Jared Leto), who even mistakes him for businessman Marcus Halberstram (Anthony Lemke), Patrick's bloodlust gets the better of him.
Killing Paul to the tune of Huey Lewis and The News' "Hip To Be Square," Patrick painstakingly covers his tracks, but is repeatedly questioned by Detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe). Growing paranoid and realizing that his sanity is slipping away, Patrick's psychosis takes hold; targeting the homeless, hookers, supermodels, strangers, and even those closest to him, Patrick murders and rapes his away through victim after victim, all the while struggling to deal with the guilt.
Since the release of John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer and Michael Mann's Manhunter and the unparalleled success of Jonathan Demme's The Silence of The Lambs, horror fans have discovered a new subgenre; the serial killer profile film. Sitting somewhere between slasher films and character dramas, these movies allow audiences to delve into the minds of flesh and blood killers and learn what drives them to kill.
Released in 2000, American Psycho remains one of the most controversial serial killer films. Based off Bret Easton Ellis' 1991 novel of the same name, American Psycho, in book and film form, generated immense controversy due to its graphic depictions of violence and sexual content. Bateman engages in sadomasochistic sexual fantasies, brutally tortures beautiful women, casually speaks of his interests in murderers like Ted Bundy and Ed Gein, and even claims to eat his victim's body parts.
On the other hand, American Psycho polarized audiences and critics; some claimed it to be a chilling horror masterpiece, while others decried it as pretentious, arthouse exploitation. Personally, I would pinpoint the satirical elements as what divides people. The driving motivation here is to poke fun at the yuppie, survival of the fittest culture of the '80s by casting the killer in that mold; Bateman wears the finest suits, snorts coke in bathrooms, has menage a trois with hookers, watches TV at work, and is all around a pompous, egotistical jerk.
I can't speak for Ellis' novel, but I have seen Mary Harron's film version and can say that, while the satire gave me enough chuckles and WTFs to be entertaining, it distracts from the story of Bateman's gradual mental breakdown. I can respect the intentions, but I'm intrigued by watching Patrick develop his mask of sanity and have it crumble all around him, not listening to him ramble on about the joys of Phil Collins and Whitney Houston songs; these moments snap me out of the film and remind me that the filmmakers are having fun with their splatter.
There's nothing wrong with horror comedy, but I do have a problem when I feel like the movie I'm watching is repeatedly slapping me upside the head with its jokes, just in case I'm too stupid to get it. Now not all the satire sticks out needlessly, but what does is frustrating. Did we need to go into detail about Patrick's regular sex life? Does he really need a fiancee, a couple mistresses and a potential love interest? Is any important information derived from learning of Patrick's daily cleansing routine? I can accept these extraneous things in books, but movies need to be more streamlined.
According to my research, Harron stuck very close to Ellis' novel, even using the exact same dialogue for the most part. That's really where American Psycho struggles; the filmmakers' decision to adapt the novel verbatim hurts the film; the dialogue feels stilted and overly written, never sounding like something real people would say at random. I can respect the desire to be faithful to your source material, but books and films are two completely different mediums and you have to be willing to make necessary changes to make that book work as a movie. Can you imagine what Jaws would've been like if Spielberg kept Peter Benchley's subplots of Ellen and Hooper having sex and Mayor Vaughn owing money to the Mafia? American Psycho's biggest flaw is that very problem.
While Harron's writing leaves something to be desired, her skills as a director are thankfully quite better. This film is visually stunning and surreal and really succeeds in putting you in the mind of a killer. The opening credits are crazy weird, the sex scenes are off-kilter in the best way possible, the closeups heighten the growing tension, and the scenes of horror and murder are appropriately gothic and creepy. In addition, Harron's visuals are perfectly complimented by Gideon Ponte's production design; not only does this look like the time period it's set in, but the sets are gorgeous and eye-catching. Her script may be overstuffed, but the production values are incredibly sleek.
My particular favorite scenes in American Psycho are the scenes of horror; this is, after all, a horror movie and I'm here to see Patrick Bateman rip people to shreds rather than shake his hips to Huey Lewis and The News. Bateman chops people up with axes, shoots random strangers, kicks animals to death, keeps severed heads in refrigerators, and in the film's best scene, puts a chainsaw to good use. Must've been that clip from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on his TV that inspired him; while Patrick is creepy throughout the whole film, his actions are every bit as important as his words in showing just how demented he is.
American Psycho might not be a great movie, but it does have a great villain in Patrick Bateman, thanks to Christian Bale's performance, which I must say is perhaps the only reason to see this film. Best known at the time for acting in Steven Spielberg's Empire of The Sun when he was 13 years old, Bale took a massive risk taking on this role; Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Leonardo DiCaprio all passed on playing such a deranged, violent character, fearful it would hurt their careers. Fearlessly committing himself to the part, Bale showcases his chameleon-esque ability to step into a role and completely disappear into it; even when saying the stilted dialogue, Bale never loses his credibility as Patrick Bateman; in fact, the cast and crew assumed he was American throughout the entire shoot; it wasn't until the wrap party when he started speaking in his natural Welsh accent. When you can even fool the people working with you on the movie, that's a true sign of a great actor.
The supporting cast is effective in their own right, the highlights being Chloe Sevigny as Patrick's secretary Jean, Willem Dafoe as Detective Kimball and Reese Witherspoon as Patrick's fiancee Evelyn. While everyone is clearly playing second fiddle to Christian Bale, it's a testament to their skills that every one onscreen has great chemistry with Bale; Sevigny creates a sympathetic character out of just a few scenes and convinces you she's the one person Patrick might actually care for, Dafoe has great fun teasing Bateman and making him sweat and it's nice to see Reese Witherspoon not so sugary sweet and cheerful for a change.
American Psycho is a difficult film to comprehend and critique. From a technical standpoint, the film is visually captivating, the moments of horror and violence are brutal, realistic and genuinely creepy, the humor, for the most part, is irresistibly funny and this cast is fantastic, especially Bale, whose performance as Patrick Bateman rivals his later work as Dicky Eklund and Batman. That being said, I can't help but feel that the story leaves me cold. Bateman's growing madness is underwritten and rushed, there's too many secondary characters running around with no payoff, the satirical elements feel forced and distracting, and the ambivalent ending comes out of nowhere. It might be a touch overrated, but it's got more flair, style and palpable tension than most horror films made this past decade. 3.5 out of 5 Stars.

Next Up: October 23rd: Hellraiser Revelations (2011)

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