Patrick Bateman is a 27-year-old yuppie who works on Wall Street, he is handsome, sophisticated, charming, and intelligent. Everything looks in perfect order from the outside, for example the relationship between him and Evelyn. He should be happy, right? Bateman is also a psychopath. American Psycho is the American dream turned into a nightmare.
It has more going for it than just being a slasher tale. It’s easy to misinterpret the story, I don’t think I fully understood Bret Easton Ellis’ novel when I read it a few years ago. It’s a satire and black comedy, living in a society obsessed with surface. A critique of male behaviour, a depiction of rampant materialism, and soullessness of 1980s Manhattan. Everything is on the surface, the clothes they wear, the references they use, there is no sense of anything beyond the surface. It’s as if it doesn’t matter what you do for a living, as long as you’re successful.
As they mentioned on The Movie of the Month Lambcast #167, American Psycho is oddly entertaining, the quotes, the music, and so forth, and probably more fun than it should be, considering the violence.
In a 1994 interview on Charlie Rose, author Bret Easton Ellis talks about how we obsess about how people appear rather than what we’ve done, he says all his books are a criticism of these values. Ellis believes we are a society who totally live in the surface, we want to believe the surface, and we find truth in the surface. Ellis hopes it isn’t like that, but he believes it is. With American Psycho, Ellis wanted to write with a voice of a serial killer. His characters seem to have no redeeming values, they stand for nothing. Ellis’ books are like a warning on how not to behave. Today the novel itself is just as famous as the fierce debate it started following the release of the book in 1991.
The film from 2000 toned down some of the explicit and controversial violence and sexuality, so as to reach a broader audience. Bret Easton Ellis said on Charlie Rose that he thinks the filmmakers did a good job in clarifying the themes and message of the book, and I think I agree. Ellis thinks it’s a misreading of American Psycho, when people focus only on the violence, which Ellis claimed in 2000 on Charlie Rose is just a few sequences of the book. The novel was criticized upon publication for glorifying violence, as well as being degrading and condescending towards women. Bret Easton Ellis’ gaze is always steadily fixed on the reader, could it be morbid fascination and blatant attention-seeking? As though asking, “Are you revolted yet? Are you shocked? It has been said that Bret Easton Ellis had chosen repulsive sensationalism as a way of ensuring commercial success. When Ellis talks of how desensitized our culture has become towards violence and how this necessitated the extremes of his novel, he is on to something about our culture. But is debatable, did Ellis go too far? Is it as some critics have claimed a how-to-manual of being a serial killer? Is the author making violence cool? We have no protective goggles when reading about Bateman’s seemingly uncensored flow of thoughts.
Actor Christian Bale gives arguably his best ever performance as the lethal yet charming Patrick Bateman. As Bale comments in the dvd featurette, Bateman has “no real sense of self whatsoever, except for that there is a lack of self.” Patrick finds pleasure in hurting other people, and he has a humour to match. A monster in a handsome disguise, comparable to the main character in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), a novel Bret Easton Ellis possibly was inspired by. Similar to The Picture of Dorian Gray, American Psycho proclaims that we shouldn’t always take what is on the surface at face value. Being attractive on the outside doesn’t necessarily equal being attractive on the inside. The relationship between Patrick and Evelyn turns out to be false, perfect on the surface, however they are using each other to always have at least someone to go out with, while simultaneously both having an affair. Ironically, even the woman Bateman is having a fling with he hardly acknowledges either.
Money is the motivating factor across all classes: the homeless, the prostitutes, the rich yuppies on Wallstreet. Bateman seems dissatisfied with being just another anonymous suit among hundreds of others on Wall Street. The twentysomethings Bateman befriends either can’t, or don’t want to reveal or admit to any deeper emotions. They carry on rivalries expressed in clothes, offices, salaries, business cards, and being able to get reservations at expensive restaurants. They are not defined by what human qualities they possess.
The author Bret Easton Ellis manages to take his obsession with deindividualization in consumer society to its extreme. Ellis explains in an interview on youtube, that Bateman’s way of identifying people is by what they are wearing, and this hints at Bateman’s isolation and alienation. In another interview, Bret Easton Ellis talks about the genesis of the novel, Ellis felt very isolated and lonely as a twentysomething author, and the story is about him entering into the world of adulthood, and being incredibly disappointed at what it means to be an adult, and being a culture that bows to all these things that are basically bullshit, and feeling the need to do these things in order to become an adult, and that’s how Patrick Bateman began to emerge as a character.
In a way, Bateman’s inner self has disappeared from public view, and maybe this is why he needs to let out his anger. Bateman is a victim of the material culture his life is dominated by, but doesn’t seem aware of being a whore to the advertising industry. Appearances and what other people think of their appearance is what they care about among his yuppie friends. Patrick Bateman does recognize that he’s numb I think. Unfortunately his idea of standing out involves the ruthless killing of men and women. Although he doesn’t want to take credit for the murders, he knows he will go to jail, so why kill in the first place? This is the central question for me, but there may not be an answer. Is Bateman tired of being part of a materialistic yuppie culture, where young people live in the city, and earn a lot of money that they spend on expensive and fashionable things? If he is so sick of his lifestyle, why doesn’t he just bail out (no pun intended), and try something new? Maybe he is afraid to, or doesn’t know how. Perhaps he was neglected as a child, doesn’t understand emotional love, and doesn’t know how to receive affection. You wonder if Bateman is so spoilt that he has never felt genuine pain, and therefore doesn’t have empathy when witnessing pain in others? Has he become immune to feelings?
Bateman succeeds in looking good, but this doesn’t translate to feeling good inside, however many beauty products he consumes. He can fool everyone else that he is young, good-looking and successful, though he can’t fool himself.
I’m a fan of the soundtrack which is a who’s who of 80s pop music, Huey Lewis and the News, New Order, Genesis, and so on. The bestseller book goes even further with lots of music references from the era.
The consumer culture made these people obsessed with the surface worth of things. You could argue Bateman is buying music from popular opinion rather than taste or enjoyment. It’s not worth anything, if it can’t be worn or displayed as an additive to the high class image.
The dancing scene involving a moonwalk, and Jared Leto sitting in the chair with newspapers all over the floor, is especially creepy, funny and memorable to me.
On the juxtaposition of brutality and consumerism Ellis says:
“I thought about juxtaposing this absurd triviality with extreme
violence … If people are disgusted or bored, then they’re finding
out something about their own limits as readers. I want to challenge
their complacency, to provoke them … American Psycho is partly
about excess–just when readers think they can’t take any more
violence, or another description of superficial behavior, more is
presented–and their response toward this is what intrigues me.”
(in Hoban 1990: 36)
In 1999 interview on youtube:
Interviewer: It’s hard to see the irony or the satire, you write with this emotional flat narrative tone. Same kind of description goes to picking out a tie as it goes to eviscerating a victim?
“Well I think that’s true in American Psycho, definitely, and that reflects a certain attitude that I was seeing in the culture, a certain casual way of dealing with brutality that seemed very suggestive to me. When you read magazines now, and when you do hear about horrible events in the world, people being tortured and murdered, it’s often within advertising. For example you pick up a magazine you see atrocity photos next to perfume adds, you watch horrible footage of violence on CNN, and immediately a commercial for baby wipes comes up. The juxtaposition in our culture of witnessing violent things, and comparing it, that to me is not that new or original. That is something that I think we experience on a daily basis.”
Perhaps American Psycho is a critique of horror and porn, which Bateman consumes during the story. Bateman enjoying watching a video tape of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) one moment. The next he is running around naked, out of control, carrying a chainsaw, and chasing a prostitute. Video becomes a dehumanizing medium in the hands of Bateman. Is Bret Easton Ellis saying these sort of horror films should not be so freely available?
We are forced to identify with Bateman, consumerism has taken over his world to such a degree that he no longer can exist as a normal human being, his excessive use of for instance bathing products clearly is a satire. The question is why is Bateman so materialistic? Is he just copying other people’s idea of what is the right way to behave? Is the risk not having his own distinctive personality, besides what he owns and has read in a magazine? What he buys is who he is. We too live in a consumer culture similar to the world depicted. How do we lash out and rebel as consumers? What can we do about it? Are we happy to be force-fed products and advertising every time we go for a walk in the street, or go online? Bret Easton Ellis is clearly critical of the world we live in, which in terms of advertising is similar to the late 80s, so the story is still relevant.
Is Bateman’s first person narrative the repressed male aggression we all have in us? So that we can sit on the sideline and live through his uncivilized, no boundaries behaviour? We get to know Bateman, who most people wouldn’t want as a friend, but it’s definitely an interesting character study of a serial killer. The story questions, is it the world around him that has made Bateman into a monster, or does the monster come from within. In my opinion the author is arguing for the environment is corrupting Bateman’s soul, and consumerism is obviously controlling and shaping his behaviour. Not that I’m in a any way defending Bateman’s actions, just that it seems Bret Easton Ellis is trying to persuade me to believe the society of 1980s Wall Street is unhealthy. However, serial killers emerge among all walks of life in random spots, not just the big city, and the author and the reader knows this. We are never given a reason why Bateman hates the world, maybe there are many reasons, maybe he is simply a psychopath, as the title indicates, maybe Bateman doesn’t even know why he has the urge to kill.
The story is about fitting in, and the importance of trends. You become part of a group by conforming, to not be alone, can take part in conversations with work colleagues, etc. Even the Huey Lewis lyrics Bateman is listening to during the murder scene, are about conforming. His entire focus is on his outward appearance and how it compares to the people around him. He cannot think about himself except in terms of the consumer driven society that surrounds him.
The men in American Psycho protect themselves by trying to exemplify what it is to be an alpha male. It’s also about not showing weakness. For Bateman a woman is a doll to be dressed. Conversation becomes nothing more than hiding who the speaker really is, whether he is emotionally fragile, or murderously violent. They spend their days trying to put on a mask to cover up what actually makes them an individual. It is possible that everyone is suffering from a similar isolation as Bateman. Just because a person regularly interacts with others, does not mean that anyone truly knows that person as an individual. A culture of hiding and theatricality becomes the perfect place for a psycho to covertly exist, it’s possible this culture created Bateman’s psychotic tendencies, and that there are more potential psychos in hiding.
In interview from 1999, Brett Easton Ellis was asked. Your obsession with surfaces, tell me a little about that?
“Maybe a lot of it has to do with growing up in Los Angeles. Being around people whose parents were involved in the film industry. And being exposed to the film industry for a very long time when growing up. And seeing certain actors I’d seen on screen over at my friends parents house, and staying over there at the weekend or something, and see how shockingly different their behavior was, I’m not going to name any names, and then like seeing them on television, or a charity benefit. I think a lot of that has to do with my concern about image and surfaces. I also think a lot of it had to do with growing up in a dysfunctional family, very angry, violent father. But at the same time when we went out, we had to put on this appearance of a very happy family, well-dressed family. Dad was okay, mum was okay, the kids were happy, even though what was going on internally in the family was very violent and disorganized.”
According to Ellis in a youtube interview:
“Yeah I get it, the world sucks. The values of society are terrible. We should not conform to them. Yet we have no choice, or else we can’t live a life.”
The question is, would Bateman rather take part in shallow Wall Street life, and if not what is the alternative? A small hint I think is in my favourite scene from the film, where Bateman visits the cleaners, and a woman tries to reach him, but ultimately Bateman is too far gone and too self-absorbed to notice her kindness. The mirrors which constantly turn up during the film are a reminder of this obsession with oneself.
Roger Ebert thinks its about a personality type, very narcissistic, very greedy, self-centred, who entirely focus on gratifying their own immediate impulses.
In an interview from 1999 on youtube, Ellis says his books “in many ways are about the importance society places on certain things, and on certain people, I think in my earlier books it was really about people who make a lot of money, rich people, and the freedom that money brings them, and the abuse of that freedom, really is what American Psycho (1991) is about, what Less than Zero (1985) is about”
As Sati at Cinematic Corner writes in her review, Bateman has a fiancé, a Wall Street job, and drinking pals he meets at restaurants, because he is supposed to, not because he likes any of them. Bateman wants everyone to envy his perfect body and supposedly perfect life.
It appears that Bateman doesn’t care about what happens, and doesn’t have any morals or conscience. Though in several scenes he attempts to confess his crimes, but nobody is really listening. His drinking buddys are not real friends, and don’t care about his feelings, so in that respect, he does feel guilty and is reaching out for help in a subtle way, even though on another level he doesn’t want to get caught. If he merely imagines himself as a vicious psycho killer is ultimately left an open interpretive question. In the story, he has both hallucinations and nightmares, what is real and what is going on only in his mind is blurred.
Hopefully nobody will ever be inspired by Bateman’s actions. There is no denying American Psycho condemned a way of life to which many people have sacrificed their youth and energy, that is what the message is about in my opinion. The violence is not the answer for Bateman, but a sign of frustration about the world he is a part of. He should be happy, he has everything. All that is missing is the most important part of the puzzle, real love, and real friendships.
Readers, any thoughts? Let me know in the comments box below!
1994 Charlie Rose interview of author Bret Easton Ellis about furor over his book American Psycho.
2000 Charlie Rose conversation with Bret Easton Ellis, director Mary Harron, and star Christian Bale
Video nasties and the monstrous bodies of American Psycho / Martin Rogers / from: Literature-Film Quarterly 39.3 (July 2011)
‘I Guess I’m a Pretty Sick Guy’: Reconciling Remorse in Thérèse Raquin and American Psycho / Steven Jay Schneider / from: Contemporary Literary Criticism Select (2002)
Hoban, Phoebe 1990: “Psycho Drama”. New York Magazine. (17 December): 32- 37.
Review of American Psycho / James Gardner / from: National Review (June 17, 1996)
Roger Ebert, film review
Cinematic Corner, film review
Horror Movie Rewind: American Psycho Review