While plenty films have brought viewers into the destructive and disturbing minds of psychopaths over the years, none since have done it quite like Mary Harron’s American Psycho did back in 2000.
Cinema’s serial killers and psychopaths both fictional and real are generally motivated by bad upbringings or their displeasures with society – but that’s not the case with American Psycho. It delves into the horror inside the mind of wealthy Wall Street banking executive Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) and offers us a psychopath that’s strangely compelling and hypnotising; a top performance from Hollywood’s great physical chameleon with dark themes about toxic masculinity that still hit to this day. With it turning 20 this week, now is a perfect time to delve back into a true horror classic.
When it debuted at Sundance Film Festival, it initially left viewers rather polarised and many of the strong remarks made then are still valid. Some of the greatest praise the film received was for Harron and Guinevere Turner’s writing, as well as Harron’s direction. There’s a great level of uncertainty and tension in it, and the way it regularly makes sudden drastic turns in the middle of scenes is incredibly entertaining. Moments like Bateman having a casual conversation with his secretary Jean (Chloe Sevigny) before making moves to kill her, or eloquently critiquing music before brutally murdering a colleague, keeping viewers on their toes and gripped.
Even the smaller moments where Bateman’s violent inner thoughts slip through poke at your curiosity and play into the film’s more fantasy driven elements. There’s a frustration within him and oddly no one really reacting to the horrifying things he says and does. These violent fantasies play up his desire for a dominant and masculine image which allows viewers to rightfully question what’s actually happening, setting up an ending that was not well liked by Bret Easton Ellis (author of the original book), but still a satisfying and famous conclusion to Bateman’s madness.
American Psycho is toxic masculinity on full, unfiltered display and Bateman’s attempts to achieve a dominant form are chilling. From a graphic sex scene with two prostitutes to his internal outburst over someone having a better business card, there is a need within Bateman to be the best. Even in the opening dialogue with his girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) he talks about wanting to “fit in” with the rest of his Wall Street brethren. He controls all the women around him, like directing the aforementioned sex scene and telling Jean what to wear, showcasing the idealised image he’s attempting to achieve. In the twenty years since its debut, American Psycho has particularly grown on me because of how well it slots Bateman’s grotesque white collar fantasies into the horror genre.
The strongest part of the film is undoubtedly Bale’s performance – which is of course still as magnetic as it was 20 years ago. It wouldn’t be same film without his career defining turn, physically showing his commitment to making the pretentious world of Wall Street blend with his gore-hungry psychotic breakdown. There’s even a “B-movie” charm he brings that evokes a dark and cold demeanour, opposite the almost comedic breaks in a character audiences ultimately fear for his unpredictability. The apartment scene still shocks today like it did in 2000 because Bale made it so iconically brutal in that moment. It still greatly disappoints me that the 2000 award season completely overlooked Bale’s performance and this film as a whole.