"American Psycho"

Mary Harron's unloved monster, here with its three-way sex scene restored, is really an enigmatic and powerful work of social satire.



Andrew O'Hehir
September 15, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

"American Psycho" (unrated version)
Directed by Mary Harron
Starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon, Chlok Sevigny
Universal; widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Making-of featurette, Christian Bale interview, more

All right, so not everybody gets the joke with "American Psycho." (And not everybody who gets it thinks it's worth getting.) Still, if you can appreciate the marvelous clarity of Mary Harron's Kubrick-on-ice compositions, and the grotesque subtlety -- not a contradiction, I promise -- of Christian Bale's performance as Patrick Bateman, the notorious Wall Street serial killer of Bret Easton Ellis' novel, your reward is one of the finest black comedies in years.

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As the DVD interview with Bale makes clear, Bateman was never meant to be a real person, and neither director nor star wasted any effort on making him seem naturalistic. Instead, he's a bottomless vacuum of unsated appetites and endless self-regard, a demonic embodiment of the Reagan-era bull market and its destructive spirit. Whether he's earnestly lecturing hookers about the virtues of Phil Collins and Whitney Houston (as one friend of mine said, this movie offers much funnier rock criticism than "High Fidelity") or running naked through the corridors of his Upper West Side condo with a chain saw, Bateman is a fantasy projection, a creature of nearly pure malice and violence.

Harron handles the violence as delicately as anyone could have; most of Bateman's actual murders occur off-screen, and as Bale remarks, the real violence of "American Psycho" lies in its tone, in the seamlessly glossy yet profoundly sinister world it creates. Patrick's bilious, snarky colleagues, his moronic girlfriend (the terrific Reese Witherspoon) and even the sycophant private eye (Willem Dafoe) who may suspect him are all almost as empty and monstrous as he is. (Chlok Sevigny, as his love-struck assistant, is the lone exception.) As with "I Shot Andy Warhol," some viewers will find Harron's determinedly ironic mode offputting, but she's an exemplary stylist. Every detail of the film, down to John Cale's muttering, troubling score, is impeccably thought through. Furthermore, I believe "American Psycho" will hold up to repeated viewings: It's an enigmatic and powerful work of social satire, sui generis and likely to remain so, whose passion and pain ultimately bleed through its pristine surface.

This unrated version restores a highly impersonal three-way sex scene -- during which the impressively buff Bale/Bateman strikes Herculean poses in the mirror -- that Harron had to cut for an R rating. The Bale interview and the making-of featurette, which includes a few quick quotes from Harron, are interesting but exceedingly brief. Personally, I think a film this controversial and this misunderstood deserves a director's commentary, but Harron has apparently decided to let her unloved monster face the world alone, with a sneer on his face and "Sussudio" pumping through his headphones.

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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