Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial postmodern gothic novel and director Mary Harron’s film adaptation, the story of ‘American Psycho’ is set in the Wall Street boom of the Reagan 80s, describing modern consumerism and human aimlessness through the narration of psychopath Patrick Bateman. MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS
“Abandon all hope ye who enter here” – says a graffiti sign on the side of a bank in the opening chapter of 1991 ‘American Psycho’, the third novel by Ellis after the hit debut ‘Less than Zero’ and ‘Rules of Attraction’. The first pages show no sign of the first person narrative as investment banker Timothy Price travels in a taxi on a way to a dinner party, complaining about crime and filth in New York to an unknown person. The lines offer a detailed look of Price, “wearing a six-button wool and silk suit by Ermengildo Zegna, a cotton shirt with French cuffs by Ike Behar, a Ralph Lauren silk tie and leather wing tips by Fratelli Rosetti”. The cataloguing of designer labels as decisive attributes of a character foreshadows the narrative style of the book. Price’s audience turns out to be the narrator, Patrick Bateman, 26 year old yuppie, part of the Wall Street Elite. Before they arrive at Bateman’s fiancé Evelyn’s place Price mistakes a man for someone he knows and makes fun of a homeless man. At the party they eat sushi and have a conversation with Evelyn’s artistic friends about politics and ethics, while Bateman wonders if Price has an affair with Evelyn. Bateman himself has an affair with Courtney, his co-worker Luis’ girlfriend.
Bateman’s stream-of-consciousness narration introduced in the first chapter presents his everyday activities, his existence on a material level. His routine of conformity consists of the repetition of visiting elite clubs and restaurants with his group of colleges, watching TV talk shows, going to the gym, returning videotapes. All his friends are successful and wealthy as he is – everyone looks alike too, resulting in regular mix-ups. The narcissist (misogynist, racist, homophobic) Bateman describes and judges others (and himself) by their image and consumer products. The biggest fears of his life are failing to lead the hierarchy of business cards and not being able to book a reservation at high class restaurant Dorsia. The pattern of ‘Les Misérables’ posters, homeless people, facial products, American Express cards and cocaine is interrupted by complete chapters dedicated to the discographies of Phil Collins era Genesis or Whitney Houston (popular, clichéd, shallow music of the 80s, equivalents of Bateman himself), sounding like music magazine reviews. Bateman’s lack of identity is hidden by a catalogue image of a young, fit and successful businessman. He is a product of popular culture, void beneath the image, the lack of character with a mask on.
This mask is the mask of sanity – to cover the real, psychopathic Bateman, a caricature of the modern masculinity of sex, fashion and violence. Bateman hires prostitutes to have sex with which he describes in long, graphic chapters. One of the first signs of his madness is the scene at the dry cleaners arguing over blood stains on his bed sheets. We soon learn that Patrick Bateman is a serial killer committing several cases of murder, violence and rape. While at first he mostly kills ‘nameless’ people, homeless men, prostitutes, and strangers (mostly people of the opposite race, class, sexual orientation or gender – Bateman, as a successful, white heterosexual male in the 80s feels threatened by the ‘others’, his paranoia and hatred serving as his main motivation), he also kills co-worker Paul Owen with an ax out of jealousy, and later uses his apartment for other crimes. Different chapters describe the further episodes of Bateman’s life, his emotionless relationship with Evelyn, his mother and brother Sean (one of the narrators of ‘Rules of Attraction’, a book Patrick Bateman himself appears for one chapter), the appearance of detective Donald Kimball searching for Paul Owen, Bateman’s attempt to strangle Luis who confesses his love to Bateman, or his date with his secretary Jean, whose honest attraction towards him confuses him. Bateman’s mask of sanity slips as he recounts different detailed, explicit acts of torture, mutilation, necrophilia, cannibalism. He also admits and comments on his own insanity several times. After the chapters ‘Tries to cook and eat girl’ and ‘Taking an Uzi to the gym’ his narration changes to third person, describing his killing spree of shooting several men on the street and later leaving a voice message on his attorney’s answering machine confessing all his crimes. He feels regret for the first time when he stabs a little boy at the Central Park zoo, as the boy is too young to have a history, a network of friends and career so it is useless to kill him. Through his grotesquely violent acts Bateman tries to search for feelings (any feelings) to fill his own emptiness, to justify his own existence, to punish the world and everyone in it in order to satisfy his own hatred. He makes incautious moves, wants to be stopped, wants to reveal himself – although no one thinks he is more than a ‘guy next door’.
Revisiting Paul Owen’s apartment he finds it clean and refurbished. After a confusing conversation with the real estate agent he finds in the apartment he leaves. He confronts his attorney who thinks the voice message was a prank and claimed to have met Paul Owen twice in the recent past. The book ends with a usual shallow conversation between Bateman and his friends at a club, with a door sign saying: “This is not an exit.”
It is possible to assume that Patrick Bateman is an unreliable narrator, although, in contrast with Chuck Palahniuk’s narrator of similarly postmodern novel ‘Fight Club’ who reveals his own unreliability, Bateman’s situation is argued by critics. His occasional confessions about different violent acts and intentions remain unheard or not acknowledged by the ones around him, suggesting that they didn’t really happen – the ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ levels of meaning come into conflict, making us question if the actual murders happened at all. The excessive goriness seems unreal at points – and could be explained by Bateman fantasising about these acts based on the books on serial killers he reads about – he mentions other serial killers more than once (the same could apply to his sexual encounters which might be fantasy scenarios based on the pornographic material such as ‘Inside Lydia’s Ass’ Bateman rents and watches). Bateman is therefore either an unstoppable monster hiding beneath the standards of society or a person living the emotionless, meaningless everyday life of consumerist emptiness, slowly sinking into dementia. Either way, similarly to the life of the nihilist teenagers of ‘Less than Zero’, ‘American Psycho’ is a bitter, dark humoured statement on society. In a way, the character himself is not of importance at all – he is the distorted reflection of society itself, the lack of a person – non-existence hiding behind the costume of a man. Following this idea, a new question is relevant: is Patrick Bateman one person, or all of them?
The 2000 adaptation of the novel starring Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, while lacking important elements of the story, became a film celebrated by cult audience. The film starts with shots of different haute cousine meals in elite restaurants. In contrast with the book, the earliest sign of Bateman’s violence is him threatening a woman in a club, unheard due to the loud music – presented in the first few minutes of the movie. As Bateman’s opening monologue describes his morning routine, the facial mask he applies represents his mask of a human being – “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there.” Showcasing the social aspects of Bateman’s life – the highlight being the scene of him feeling inferior based on his co-workers’ better looking business cards – director Mary Harron fails to present his life in its complete monotony, in spite of the fact that it is his life obsessed with products and activities that triggers his madness.
To ensure an R-rating, the film systematically excludes explicit sex and violence – a list including Bateman slitting the eyeballs of a homeless man, cutting a woman’s tongue out with scissors and performing oral rape on her (which he also performs on a severed head later) or inserting a rat into another woman’s vagina -, making Paul Owen’s (Jared Leto) murder and a chainsaw scene the most violent moments. The popularity of the film version rather relies on Bale’s performance, especially in the scenes where he talks about Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and the News right before a sexual act or murder.
Harron claims she didn’t intend to question Bateman’s unreliability as a narrator. In her interpretation, the events of the film actually took place, and Bateman is unable to experience the closure of being caught, as he is offered an alibi to Owen’s murder and is not taken seriously. This version simplifies a monologue from the novel and places it in the end of the film. The voice-over narration admits that his story lacks purpose and determination in an empty society that is unable to notice him.
“There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it I have now surpassed. My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this, there is no catharsis; my punishment continues to elude me, and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”