One of the very first memes I remember using is a still from American Psycho, showing Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) lifting an ax and grimacing with both pity and amusement. He’s about to butcher Paul Allen (Jared Leto) to death. The antisocial despair and arrogance that the image communicates were exactly what I needed to semi-ironically signal my teenage angst.
Twenty years after its release, Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho remains ingrained in our collective memory for the extremes it explores with a helpful dose of humor (I was never actually going to ax anyone). And reality has made it difficult to forget: Our increasingly materialistic lifestyles have made us carry our brands around not simply in the form of a personalized business card or wardrobe, but also in the electronic devices we use, the diets and social media accounts we follow, and the TV shows and blockbusters we publicly praise. Patrick Bateman’s search for identity is a story that has inched closer and closer to our modern existence, even if in less overtly violent ways.
One of the first times Bateman speaks in American Psycho, it is to playfully respond to one of his fellow businessmen’s openly antisemitic remarks. Josh Lucas plays Craig McDermott as the caricatural personification of bigotry, spewing insults to women, the Jewish faith, and gay people in one breath. Lucas truly wears the character like a second skin—Bale, on the other hand, already stands out. Like in the meme, his face is slightly at odds with his situation: He seems at pains to match his facial expression with his words. The inability to physically respond to social cues in a natural way can be a sign of emotional maldevelopment (think of Ted Bundy practicing his smiles in front of his mirror) and although American Psycho may have done more harm than good by presenting psychopathy as inevitably lethal, Bale did understand that Bateman’s loneliness ran bone deep. This was genius casting: Bale, at least Method-adjacent in his technique, always tries to “become” his character. He is therefore at his best when playing men who themselves struggle with their sense of self (Christopher Nolan has leaned into this quality, casting Bale as the two-faced Bruce Wayne and as twins in The Prestige). Bale’s ability to emphasize the performative aspect of personality could look like bad acting, and in American Psycho it does, but mainly because Bateman’s identity is so fragile. He anxiously tries to look the part.
Progressive political opinions aren’t the only building blocks with which Bateman puts together his persona. Music has precisely the same function: When he talks to people about Huey Lewis and the News or Phil Collins, he is completely engrossed by his own words, seemingly reassured that his detailed analyses demonstrate that he is “in touch with humanity,” as he later declares—yet his guests are baffled by his lectures (the film critic in me feels seen). He is constantly grasping at cultural artifacts for reflection—in a very funny shot, Harron has Bateman look at himself in a glass-framed poster of Les Misérables, one of the most ubiquitous musicals of all time, putting him in the same category as millions of other people. He is learning about the world to disappear into it.
Bateman’s reflection and appearance are crucial to him in a pathological and modern way. Harron cleverly turns his lengthy morning routine into a cosmetics ad selling you an entire lifestyle. Bale’s descriptive voice-over speaks in velvety tones as a delicate piano (by John Cale) bathes the scene in luxurious serenity. Bateman’s sculpted body is presented in full as it is perfected through exercise and lotions. His outward appearance is the modern ideal, which he also confirms for himself by videotaping his straight sexual encounters, for which he carefully selects sex workers for their looks (one of them is asked to dance, and her moves are clearly inspired by Melanie Griffith’s in Brian De Palma’s 1984 erotic thriller Body Double, a film all about the illusory power of images). These moments, too, are athletic workouts: In the midst of acrobatic poses, Bateman winks at himself in the mirror, triumphant. He is the ultimate “boy next door,” as his fiancée Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) calls him: the poster boy for individualistic upper-class America.
Bateman is the “American psycho” in question, but what does that make Craig McDermott, or Timothy Bryce (Justin Theroux), or Marcus Halberstram (Anthony Lemke), for that matter, with whom Bateman often gets confused? They all follow the same codes, they all dress the same, they prefer the same interior design, go to the same night clubs—their choices aren’t choices since they’re all dictated by money. Bateman’s identity crisis stands for a larger, more general one that the rest of his peers are going through.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the film would be funnier and less destabilizing than Easton Ellis’s book—cinematic representation is naturally more external than that of first-person literature. But Harron takes advantage of this gap between audience and film: She jumps in and out of Bateman’s point of view to better reveal how comically and tragically distorted it is. When the boys show each other their new business cards (size isn’t all that matters), Harron’s camera captures the suspense before each dramatic reveal, coming close to Bateman’s sweaty face and letting the spectator scrutinize each card. For these narcissistic men living in their privileged bubble, such details as a shade of white or a watermark are of considerable importance. This skewed sense of proportion applies to every aspect of Bateman’s life: Getting restaurant reservations is capital (the food itself doesn’t matter), and the behaviors of sober and intoxicated friends are hard to differentiate. The discrepancy between the cheerful ’80s tunes he blares out and his simultaneous brutal violence doesn’t bother him, and Harron lets the counterpoint be both amusing and horrifying. When Bateman takes an inebriated Paul Allen back to his apartment to kill him, the director first shows Allen cluelessly lounging on Bateman’s sheet-protected couch, with the floor covered in newspapers. Allen himself has lost his sense of perspective, and his common sense.
Harron’s masterful direction plays with perspective in another, more ingenious way. Years before Fleabag, she offers Bateman moments of respite when he can drop the mask and express how he really feels, for only the audience to hear. Although he never addresses the camera, he occasionally answers honestly to the questions people ask him, but they somehow don’t hear him. The first time we learn of his murderous impulses, it is when a waitress in a loud nightclub only accepts credit cards. Behind her back, Bateman shouts a gruesome description of the way in which he would like to kill her. But Harron presents this retort by pointing her camera to a mirror, as though it were a window into Bateman’s mind. The narrative possibilities of montage also allow Harron to implicate the audience in Bateman’s dark thoughts. His detachment from others becomes ours, too.
The spectator is therefore let in on Bateman’s dark secret, but Harron doesn’t reveal all the gore at once: Some blood-stained sheets (not cranberry juice) or Bateman playing with a lock of blond hair only suggest murder, as though Bateman himself were repressing these incidents. Yet progressively, as his “nightly bloodlust [overflows] into [his] days,” the audience sees more. Bateman’s killing of a homeless man occurs in front of our eyes and makes evident that violence is his secret valve through which he releases the tension of his lifestyle. Before knifing the innocent man, Bateman riffs incoherently through his political stances: “Why don’t you get a job?” (modern liberalism); “I am going to help you” (a more generous approach, at least); and finally, “I don’t have anything in common with you,” a declaration that rings more personal. Relating in any way to a man without a job, an apartment, or designer clothes would threaten Bateman’s identity, suggesting that, like the homeless man, he doesn’t fit in the capitalist world they live in. Violence is also Bateman’s way of asserting his conformity.
Bateman kills those below him, but also those above—the upper class is selfish and hierarchist because becoming the best is the only way to stand out. This is why Allen died. When Luis Carruthers (Matt Ross) later shows off his own admittedly exceptional business card, Bateman goes to strangle him in the men’s room. He freezes in shock, however, when Carruthers takes his grip as a romantic gesture and admits his attraction. It isn’t surprising that such intolerant men as the P&P employees would deem someone slightly different “a doofus.” Bateman realizes that the identity he has worked so hard to project can be misread, and discovers that he isn’t the only one wearing the mask of convention. Could this mean that no one really buys into his lie?
Bateman’s crimes are his way of fitting in, until they’re not. Allen’s disappearance is soon followed by the questions of private investigator Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe). As a figure of authority who could also point him out as a glitch in the capitalist system, Kimball makes Bateman uneasy. Harron highlights the comedic awkwardness of Bateman overacting his normalcy: Robotically, he asks “What is the topic of discussion?” twice, and insists on offering his guest a drink. As poor as his performance may be, however, it works: Kimball eventually reminds Bateman that on the night of Allen’s disappearance, he was apparently having dinner with friends. But the “awesome wave” of relief that washes over Bateman leads to more violence: a part of him wanted to get found out.
In the film’s climax, Bateman’s impulses overtake him and the screen: An ATM asks to be fed a stray cat, and he ends up blowing up a police car. His pain becomes too sharp and his crimes become clear cries for help. Tearful, he leaves a voicemail to his lawyer, desperately trying to list the murders he’s committed (here, Bale excels at combining despair and hilarity). But the next day, the lawyer doesn’t even recognize him. The system doesn’t acknowledge his crimes nor his suffering. “I want my pain to be inflicted on others,” he says in his final monologue, because he hopes others understand how he really feels. But “there is no catharsis” since the mask he has made for himself precludes pain and escape. Bateman is too perfect an asset for the system to reject him. The boy next door can’t cry wolf.
Bateman’s monologue famously ends with the nihilistic declaration that “this confession has meant nothing,” but a disturbed psychopath can’t be expected to be very hopeful. Earlier, Bateman went through an experience that, sadly, unsettled him a lot more than murdering people. He had invited his secretary Jean (Chloe Sevigny), a seemingly innocuous young woman, to his apartment, but found himself unable to hurt her. She had talked about how she wasn’t yet sure of who she was, what she wanted, and where she was going with her life. Her acceptance of uncertainty, even if it makes her insecure, allows Jean to have an independent mind, one that doesn’t seek all its validation from society. In her youthful timidity, Jean may well be the strongest, most stable person Bateman has ever known, and her openness is contagious. Unlike everyone around him, she doesn’t assume that Bateman’s status can indicate who he really is, so she simply asks him.
Bateman is taken aback by this form of honesty: The right to be unsure of oneself, the option to express one’s inner thoughts, and the acknowledgment that people are multifaceted are epiphanies. But Bateman’s tragedy is that he doesn’t believe himself capable of such vulnerability. He has no emotion “except for greed and disgust,” but the individualistic system he has merged with doesn’t tolerate the expression of such dark feelings—unless through violence. Jean’s behavior goes against the norm that Bateman has pledged allegiance to and been enslaved by. “There is no catharsis” in learning that these people could understand his pain, because he can’t escape the corporate robot he has become in order to reach out to them. As Bret Easton Ellis writes to close his book, this is not an exit.
Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.