American Psycho

Everyone hated the book, especially those who never read it. Back in 1991, the honchos at Simon & Schuster looked at a manuscript by Bret Easton Ellis, 27, about Patrick Bateman — a Wall Street stud into designer labels and the aprés-sex mutilation of the hard-bodies he escorted to chic restaurants — and decided to breach their contract to publish. Ellis kept his $300,000 advance, made a new deal with Vintage Books and watched the world slime him as if he had committed the murders. "Snuff this book," wrote Roger Rosenblatt in the New York Times. The National Organization for Women demanded a boycott of such "misogynistic garbage." Ellis, who thought he'd written a social satire about the moral bankruptcy of the Reagan era, was vilified as a literary Hannibal Lecter and received anonymous death threats.

Jeez. No wonder it took nearly a decade for someone to make a movie version of American Psycho. How lucky that that someone is the Canadian-born, Oxford-educated Mary Harron. (Oliver Stone almost queered the deal in a plan to direct the film as a bad-ass vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio to kill off his teen-girl fan base from Titanic, but The Beach did the job with blandness.) Harron, the rock journalist and documentarian who made a striking feature debut in 1996 with I Shot Andy Warhol, responded to the satiric rather than the slasher elements. The result is an uneven movie that nonetheless bristles with stinging wit and exerts a perverse fascination.

As Patrick, played with hot-bod, cold-eyed resonance by the superb Christian Bale, goes about his bloody business, Harron and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner — she plays one of Patrick's targets - keep an ironic distance. Ellis, while admiring the film, has carped about his book being "condensed and tidied up." I, for one, am grateful. The novel, with its catalogs of brand names and gross-outs (the bit about Patrick shoving a starving rat up a victim's vagina has been mercifully deleted), can be a tough slog. Ellis agrees: "Look, it's a very annoying book. But that is how, as a writer, I took in those years." Harron takes in the excess of the late 1980s at a faster clip. One glimpse of Patrick in his sterile office and apartment — lit for a daytime vampire by the great cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (Pulp Fiction) — is worth a chapter by Ellis. Home for Patrick is a place to work out while watching anal-rape videos and using perky pop songs, such as "Hip to Be Square" by Huey Lewis and the News and "Sussudio" by Phil Collins, as mood music for murder.

Patrick and his broker pals spend major bucks on suits, ties, shoes and grooming products, only to look exactly the same. One of the film's best jokes is how these preening males often fail to recognize one another. Let a friend stand out with something as simple as a better business card and Patrick goes nuts. He takes an ax to an associate, Paul Allen (Jared Leto), then uses Paul's apartment as a place to bring two hookers, played by Krista Sutton and Cara Seymour. Paul's closets come in handy to store body parts; the heads Patrick keeps in the fridge.

"I like to dissect girls," Patrick tells his buddies over drinks. No one listens or cares, not even the detective (Willem Dafoe) who can't stay focused on Patrick's homicidal urges. Neither could the ratings board, which originally slapped an NC-17 on American Psycho not for Patrick's ax-whacking but for his three-way with the hookers. A trim of a few hardly erotic seconds won the film an R.

Such hypocrisy shows that Harron's depiction of a shallow Eighties world is far from dated. What+s unexpected is the human dimension she brings to Ellis' characters, notably the women. Seymour, a British actress, invests the terrified hooker with surprising strength. Reese Witherspoon, as Patrick's clever fiance, and Samantha Mathis, as his junkie mistress, play women who don't define themselves through men. And Chloe Sevigny (Boys Don't Cry) is outstanding as Jean, the smitten assistant who knows her boss is keeping dark secrets. Harron expertly handles the crossed wires of their first date — he wants to kill her, she wants to love him.

Still, it's Bale — the Welsh actor who came to fame in 1987 as the child star of Steven Spielberg's underrated Empire of the Sun — who anchors the story. He's mesmerizing, even when the film flies off course in its surreal and numbing final third. "I simply am not there," says Patrick, who may be just imagining the murders. A cop-out? Maybe. But whenever Harron digs beneath the glitzy surface in search of feelings that haven't been desensitized, the horrific and hilarious American Psycho can still strike a raw nerve.

From The Archives Issue 839: April 27, 2000