American Psycho

on April 14, 2000 by Annlee Ellingson
The victim (or perhaps the beneficiary) of fierce controversy, "American Psycho," while violent, is far removed from the novel on which it's based. Writer-director Mary Harron ("I Shot Andy Warhol") has pared down author Bret Easton Ellis' violence, leaving intact his social commentary and wicked sense of humor.

Set on Wall Street in the gluttonous 1980s, "American Psycho" stars Christian Bale ("Velvet Goldmine") as Patrick Bateman, a 27-year-old mergers-and-acquisitions executive who hates his job but is doing his best to fit in, eating at the best restaurants, dating a high-society girl, shagging a colleague's high-society girl.

But underneath his polished veneer, Bateman is a maniac, prone to extensive beauty and exercise routines, which he describes in voiceover in fastidious detail. His knowledge and interpretation of the latest music (his favorites being Huey Lewis and the News, Genesis and Whitney Houston) is cataloguic. He breaks out in a cold sweat if he thinks he's going to get a bad table at a hip hangout, his colleagues produce more tasteful business cards than he, or he discovers his nemesis has a more expensive apartment overlooking Central Park.

It's this latter tendency that drives Bateman over the edge. He ultimately kills a competitor (the one with the swank apartment) with an axe to the head out of jealousy. Getting away with it, he commits more murders, killing homeless people, prostitutes and unwitting acquaintances, concocting elaborate ruses to cover his tracks. One night he goes on a rampage, shooting innocent bystanders, cops and friendly doormen. Out of his mind, he calls his lawyer and confesses everything. The man who has worked so diligently to fit in ultimately wants to get caught because only his violent deeds will distinguish him from his peers.

Bale submerges himself in this role, embodying Bateman emotionally and physically. A sadistic Tom Cruise, he portrays the character with equal doses of subtlety and caricature.

Harron opts to keep most of her film's gore off-screen, shooting just a couple of short, blunt scenes of violence, hinting at the scope of Bateman's crimes through aftermath and leaving the rest to the viewer's imagination.

As for the filmmakers' claims that "American Psycho" is a feminist film, it is true that all the men here are despicable (though Bateman's buddies don't exhibit his misogyny, they do dismiss a woman's personality or talent as superfluous), and all the women are sympathetic. But they're not necessarily bright or strong or engaging.

Nonethele ss, "American Psycho" is really brilliant in the way it takes the viewer inside Bateman's world. It loses footing during his climactic crime spree so one's not quite sure where it's headed, but the end, ambiguous and unsettling, perfectly captures the tone of the first few fantastic reels. Starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis and Chloe Sevigny. Directed by Mary Harron. Written by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner. Produced by Edward R. Pressman, Chris Hanley and Christian Halsey Solomon. Thriller. A Lions Gate release. Rated R for strong violence, sexuality, drug use and language. Running time: 104 min

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