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20 Years Later: American Psycho

21 April 20 words: Miriam Blakemore-Hoy

As director Mary Harron’s controversial film turns twenty, we take a retrospective look at one of the most elegantly constructed and brutal portrayals of the insidious side of the human mind...

Director: Mary Harron
Starring: Christian Bale, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas
Running time: 101 minutes

Based on the 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho is a satirical exploration of the hedonistic consumerist culture of the eighties taken to its very breaking point. Casting the then relatively unknown Christian Bale in the titular role of Patrick Bateman, Harron and writer Genevieve Turner sought to translate pages littered with extreme violence and gruesome torture scenes into something palatable enough to convey its message without making everyone forcibly sick and traumatised.

To that end, some of the book’s more infamous scenes - I’m thinking of the human habitrail - were changed or cut, while a refined and concentrated essence of the story remained. Yet, early on, the infamy of the novel appeared to colour and distort the general public perception of the film before the crew had even started rolling. When production first started, they were beset with protests against this “hideous and disgusting movie” from organisations such as Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment (snappy name there) without any real knowledge of what the film was actually about. Many of those who were vocally against it later admitted that they hadn’t even read the book.

Critics were also confused about why a project such as this would appeal to a writer and director team of two women, but then that shows that they were rather missing the point. The notoriety surrounding it meant that few people took on board the clever, satirical critique Ellis had penned about the toxic, misogynistic and sadistic culture bred into society. They were expecting something more like a classic slasher. Instead it is the blackest of comedies, a farcical exploration of how evil is rewarded by the narcissism and merciless indifference of a culture that doesn’t care what happens at the heart of it.

American Psycho went on to shape the future of the horror film in the 21st century

Harron managed to bring to the screen a novel that even its author believed was unadaptable and by doing so brought a new dimension to it. While we still get the inner narration from Bateman’s perspective, on film we get a unique viewpoint of him from the outside which shows no mercy. By taking ourselves outside of his narcissistic narration, and looking at him boldly on screen, we can see Bateman for what he really is; the flaws show through the cracks. And we see beyond what he wants us to see, the pretences, the superficial, the hiding behind a façade.

We see the emptiness inside, as well as the terror of not fitting in: not being the best, the most exclusive, the most perfect representative of humanity. This is something that we couldn’t really get from the book, where Bateman controlled the direction of the narration absolutely. Yet Bateman’s monotonous monologues of bland descriptions perfectly balance out the ferocious rampages just as they do in the novel. Harron instructed Bale to play the character as if he was a “martian”; a being without humanity trying to mimic it, and from the deadness behind his eyes, Bale hit this mark perfectly.

In 2000, the year the film was released, Harron told the New York Times: “It is the fear of motiveless evil that lies at the heart of all horror movies. There is something to be said for bringing those fears to light. Movies, after all, express not just our communal dreams but also our communal nightmares, and the director has responsibility for both.” Despite a rough start, American Psycho went on to shape the future of the horror film in the 21st century and launched Christian Bale’s career to new and dazzling heights - despite his co-stars being under the impression that he was the worst actor they had ever worked with, not understanding the artistic direction he had taken.

After twenty years, is it time to reflect on how things have changed? Now that time has passed, the world in which we live doesn’t seem to be much different to that of Patrick Bateman’s. In fact, I could imagine him living quite comfortably here and perhaps that’s the most terrifying thought of all.

Did you know? In the background of the final scene, a sign reads "THIS IS NOT AN EXIT". These are the last words of the book.

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