Universal // 2000 // 103 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // August 21st, 2000
Chilling yet with a strange, black humor, American Psycho takes an edgy, satirical look at the life of a self-obsessed Wall Street dilettante during the 1980s. With a high sense of style, shocking homicidal tendencies, and absence of modest human kindness in nearly all the characters, this is a film that should do anything but leave you indifferent. Extra content is a basic package, but still this is a good release from Universal.
As a mergers & acquisitions predator during the heyday of the 1980s, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) wears outrageously expensive suits, eats the most pretentious meals at the trendiest of restaurants, has a beautiful and wholly superficial girlfriend, Evelyn Williams (Reese Witherspoon), and takes obsessive care of his physique and skin. However, Patrick has a problem. He simply isn't *there*. Oh, he can feign the usual array of social pleasantries and ways of interacting, but on the inside he has no sense of morality, compassion, or authentic emotion. His friends are similarly obsessed and shallow, so naturally they don't pick up on Bateman's perfect forgery. As Christian Bale observes in his interview, Bateman always sees himself as the lead in his own movie, whether that is an action movie, a porno movie, or a horror movie.
His homicidal tendencies are unpredictable. A homeless man, a rival mergers & acquisitions colleague, a prostitute, an old college acquaintance, and others all fall victim to his unquenchable desires and utter boredom. A petty jealousy over an odd competition at work over who has the coolest business card might explain one murder, but the rest seem wholly arbitrary and capricious, which is probably the point. Bateman's life gets more complicated when private investigator Richard Kimball (Willem Dafoe) is hired to look into the death of Bateman's colleague. However, this is only a minor complication, for Bateman continues to exploit his steely nerves and unerring luck to elude entrapment even as he continues his depredations.
The ending is suitably messy, unclear and disturbing. It should leave you wondering exactly how much of what you have seen "actually happened" or whether some, or all, was the product of Patrick Bateman's insane fantasies.
Having had a few days to muse upon my first viewing of American Psycho, I decided that the weakest component of the film is the screenplay (though not having read the book, I cannot say if this is a common fault with the book as well). There's lots of sizzle, but not a lot of steak. The satire of Wall Street young guns and trust fund babies and their social scene in the 1980s is clear, but what it lacks is depth and context.
From the movie, I know that these bored rich elitists lead shallow and empty lives, particularly Patrick Bateman, whose boredom leads to the extreme of sustained sadistic murder. And...? I don't accept the notion that American Psycho is simply an indictment of the 1980s. Laying aside the numerous 1980s pop culture references, people such as these are not unique to that decade and there is no development of any background so that we might see how elements unique to that time period fostered the development of these poseurs. Further, even with the lead character, Patrick Bateman, all we get is character exposition and not development, or even explanation. He and his friends simply are, and while you might enjoy the spectacle, you will not get very far if you try to dig deep.
Certainly the sharp, usually dark, style of American Psycho is visually compelling and well done, and I found myself comparing it to the look of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs even before I discovered that all three movies share the cinematography of Andrzej Sekula.
As we should all expect from a modern film release, the anamorphic video transfer for American Psycho is gorgeous. The picture might be lacking just a bit in sharpness and there is a light scattering of blips and debris, but these are minor complaints. Overall, the colors are bright and clear, blacks nearly perfect, skin tones accurate, and I noticed some edge enhancement "razoring" on the blinds of Bateman's office during his interview with Det. Kimball. Not bad at all for a film with a very modest $8 million budget!
The sound is relevant to the action, meaning that it does a capable job in sustaining the sharp style and dark mood of the film without resorting to inappropriate gee-whiz sound engineer's tricks. As such, the audio is a pleasant, broad sound spread primarily across the front main and center speakers, though the rear surrounds are sparingly used for atmosphere and the occasional split surround effect (as in the climactic action sequence in Chapter 16). More importantly, the dialogue is clear (though mixed a bit low to my tastes) and the groovy soundtrack of '80s songs is delightfully reproduced in all of its relative glories.
One reason I find it hard to take American Psycho as a serious indictment of the 1980s is paradoxically the blistering, satiric performance of Christian Bale (Henry V, Velvet Goldmine, Shaft). His body language and delivery create a black humored Patrick Bateman, but with such arrogant self-aware irony that it is hard to take the film seriously even as we see Bateman commit wanton acts of cruelty and abhorrent violence. In a sense, this is a fine performance that nevertheless seems out of place with the director's vision. If the film was to be a serious yet satiric take on the 1980s, I think Mary Harron should have toned down Bale's caffinated energy and cooled his over-the-top tendencies.
Willem Dafoe (To Live and Die in L.A., Clear and Present Danger, eXistenZ) is (by no fault of his own) a non-entity as the persistent Det. Kimball, since the role has neither the screen time nor the activity to let him get off the ground and show his talent. Reese Witherspoon (Election,Pleasantville) and the rest of the cast fit nicely into their roles and the overall style of American Psycho, but only Chloë Sevigny (Trees Lounge, Boys Don't Cry ) stands out as Bateman's naïve, very human secretary who is tragically drawn to his powerful façade.
Extra content is about par for a regular Universal release. The production notes are four skimpy pages, but the cast and filmmakers section covers many more people than is often the case (here, eleven in all). The theatrical trailer is matted to 1.85:1 and is in Dolby 2.0 and is an excellent example of its kind, using judicious scene juxtaposition, editing, and cool sound to fairly present the substance of American Psycho without giving away too much. The short featurette is typical promotional fluff, though the interview with Christian Bale does provide at least modest insight into the character of Christian Bateman and the film in general.
There was such a mix of positive and negative in American Psycho that I felt I had to cover them in my case in chief, so I have little to add here in rebuttal. I'm not sure how well American Psycho will stand up to repeat viewings as a whole movie, but some of the bizarrely funny scenes (Exhibit A: Bateman's dissertation on Huey Lewis and the News and then "Hip to Be Square" playing in the background as he uses a silvered axe to hack a man to death) may be reason enough to pull it off the shelf now and again.
Shocking, horrific, and with undeniable moments of black comedy, American Psycho is not for the faint of heart. The violent and cold-hearted sexuality and extreme (though often suggested) violence are far beyond what may be seen in most movies, so consider carefully whether you and your intended audience are ready for American Psycho. With that caution, I would recommend a rental, but I leave it to you to decide whether the ($26.98 list) disc is worth a space on your shelf.
Universal is acquitted for its capable efforts on the disc, while American Psycho itself is remanded to custody for a mental status exam forthwith upon its plea of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interview with Christian Bale
* Production Notes
* Cast and Filmmaker Bio
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site
* The Editing Room