Film Discussion

Discuss This! – Mary Harron’s American Psycho

Eighteen years ago, American Psycho was released, and making dinner reservations would never be the same. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, everyone’s favourite posh coke-head turned novelist, American Psycho would catapult its slightly obscure leading man, Christian Bale, into the spotlight while dimming the lights on its female director, Mary Harron.

Despite churning 399 pages into a razor-sharp 101 minutes, revealing biting satire and piercing terror, not to mention drawing almost five times its meagre $5 million budget, Harron wouldn’t make another feature film for four more years.

Set the Tape‘s own staff writers Jenn Reid and Greg Mucci take a look back at her pivotal film, American Psycho, while celebrating the month of February and the women of horror, who time and time again demonstrate that the camera isn’t just a man’s toy.

Greg: Woah that was a trip down memory lane! It’s been so long since I’ve seen American Psycho that since that viewing, I’ve sort of become a Huey Lewis and the News fan…sort of!

Jenn: Ha! As I was watching it, I realised I hadn’t seen it since, maybe high school? Funny thing now as an adult, I realise that I work in the same building as Patrick Bateman!! Shout out to everything filming in Toronto

G: Oh wow lol, that’s awesome! Notice anything in particular? High School’s probably when I last saw it, too. I can’t exactly remember where and when I saw it; but I knew I was watching something kind of brilliant and magnetic transpire in front of me.

J: It wasn’t until the scene towards the end where he’s going into the lobby and shooting the security guards that I noticed. I was thinking about how they kept emphasising the same-ness and interchangeability of the people, offices, etc. and was like “it even looks like my office building…wait, is it??” and then had to take a google break!

G: That’s crazy! So where he lives is where you now work? That really fits the entire film’s theme. It’s like your building is Patrick Bateman, but people get it confused with Marcus Halberstram. Wait, or am I confusing the lobby at the end with his home? The finale is a whirlwind, so I can’t recall if he went back to his job or not. I think I was severely caught up in the intense shootout that Mary Harron happens to craft better than almost every action film of 2000!

J: You know, maybe that was his home, or Paul Allen’s home! It totally fits the theme of everything being so similar and easily confused. But that full on action scene at the end really is surprisingly great.

G: It really is! I mean, 2000 saw a bunch of dude-centric action flicks helmed by men, with Gladiator even winning Best Picture. And as fond as I am of Gone in 60 Seconds (I know, I know), I think American Psycho’s last 15 minutes makes up the best action film of that year!

J: That’s one of the scenes I had kind of forgotten about. I remembered the most iconic bits like the business cards, the beauty routine, the Jared Leto murder etc. but totally forgot about that crazy action ending…and somehow forgot about the naked chainsaw scene, which is also bananas and amazing!

G: Those are all fantastic scenes! I never noticed that he was buck-ass naked with the chainsaw, with shoes on! It really adds a nervous chuckle to a scene that’s absolutely terrifying! The one scene that always stood out for me, and that I think is possibly my favourite shot of the entire film, is when he’s doing his ab routine with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on in the background. I think it perfectly encompasses this obsessively beautiful yet eerie representation of his mind and body, which is almost plastic like, and when I was a teen, I thought “I want to be fit, working out, with one of my favourite horror films on in the background!” But I’m not a sociopath…

J: No, no this is an interesting thread I want to touch on! So much of this movie is about how men look at each other and at themselves, and this notion of moulding yourself into the “ideal man” with the best job, apartment, physique, etc. Was that aspect relatable? Did you originally see the whole thing as satire or were you like “Bateman is crazy, but everyone else is totally normal!”

G: Oh, I think there was (and still is) a huge give and take with the obsessive aspects. As a teen when I first saw this, I was very overweight, so what I gravitated towards were the excessive amount of dedication it depicted and the obsession that radiated from Bateman. When he’s says he can do 1000 crunches, in my head I’m like “shit, for real? Okay, okay let’s do this! 1000! That’s what I need to do to be fit, to be hard, and to be beautiful.” When it came to pushing and transforming one’s body, I was super gullible, and at that age, completely unaware that it was mocking and sort of lampooning excess.

J: I’m thinking too about Fight Club, and how that satire was lost on so many dudes who went out and started their own fight clubs without realising the movie meant to mock that strain of toxic masculinity. Did American Psycho do it better?

G: That’s a great comparison! I’m not sure anyone really did it better, one more subtle than the next. I mean, Fincher and Harron set out to capture the same thing. Here you have violence towards women from men, and with Fight Club, you have that same inner struggle for masculinity through violence, but towards other men. That whole toxic masculinity thing kind of permeates from both. Do you remember the first time you saw this?

J: I do! I was definitely in high school and watched it in my best friend’s basement and thought it was just the funniest, craziest thing I’d ever seen. We were both losing our minds. I’m sure a lot of the satire went over my head at the time, especially in terms of 80s excess and the culture, but I still found it fantastic! Read the book a few years later and found myself vastly preferring the movie, which is rare. Plus, Bret Easton Ellis hates this movie and says women can’t direct, so a hearty fuck you to him!

G: Ellis is definitely less than zero, and by that I mean he’s totally a negative douchebag! But getting back to the film, when you watched it, did you gravitate to it as more of a horror satire, or a dark satire with some bursts of horror thrown in? Because watching it now, I was definitely taken aback by how sharply funny it really is.

J: First time I saw it as a horror satire, I think. But yeah, watching it again, there are laugh out loud moments in this. It’s straight up funny! There are a few scenes of ominous dread, but a lot of really smart black comedy.

G: Even some of the dialogue that’s heavily misogynistic is so absurd that it’s hard not to laugh, particularly “You piece of bitch trash” when he’s chasing the prostitute through his apartment. Watching it though, and witnessing these acts, as a woman, do you come away from it with a little bit of tongue in cheek humour, or does it hit harder than it might, say as opposed to a male audience?

J: The misogyny in the movie is done in a way that really heightens the humour and the horror, oddly enough. The scene where he’s barking orders at the women while lecturing about Peter Gabriel, or where he’s telling his secretary how to dress, are both so clearly chauvinistic but with this heightened performance from Christian Bale. You know it’s not something the movie is condoning or doing by accident. It’s psycho behaviour!

G: Yeah, I can definitely see that! The way Bale delivers everything is with such a wink and nod that it’s almost like we’re watching this caricature of the devil in a tailored suit.

J: Definitely! But then you have scenes where he’s with women sexually and treating them like objects, positioning them and pressuring them into sex, and you know it can turn south at any moment…and of course it does. His performance here is so great. Have you heard that he based it off Tom Cruise? Is Tom Cruise the real American Psycho?

G: I heard that! Supposedly Bale was having trouble getting into character, until he saw Tom Cruise on Letterman, and looked deep into his empty eyes carrying this big smile. I can totally see it, even though I’m a big fan of Tom Cruise.

J: At a certain point, with that tidbit in mind, I really saw the similarities! That big smile and forced friendliness; total Tom Cruise moment!

G: Right?! Bale’s facial expressions though, his subtle tics and cues, are absolutely brilliant! It’s like some spoiled kid is hiding behind his eyes with his finger on a light switch and he’s just flicking it on off, on off. Apparently Leonardo DiCaprio was up for the role, though he was asking $21 million, which is just insane, considering this was made for almost a third of that.

J: Oh man, Leo could not have pulled this off in 2000! Maybe Wolf of Wall Street Leo, but not baby-faced Leo. Bale absolutely kills this role. It’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it. I bet most of the budget went to reservations at Dorsia.

G: Or all the crayons at…Crayons! But I feel like I should clear the air and maybe get this out now…I’m not entirely sure I like American Psycho!

J: Ha! Alright, let’s talk it out. What aren’t you sure about? What doesn’t work for you?

G: Don’t get me wrong, everything works! I really do think it’s a brilliant, masterclass in genres, but I don’t know, I just can’t find anyone likeable outside Willem Dafoe’s pressing detective, and while that shouldn’t determine a film, it kind of does when most everyone is so insufferable. I don’t know, I have to return some video tapes.

J: I actually found a few side characters more sympathetic than I remember, like Courtney the pill addict who hates her life, and Luis the repressed gay guy with a horribly misguided crush…or Jean, the secretary who also has a horribly misguided crush. Reese Witherspoon’s character is not sympathetic, but was still totally great; she had me cracking up a few times. Why did she have a pet pig for one scene and where did it go?? Rich people!

G: Okay, you make a good point, but I think that Bateman’s looming shadow is just too big for me to place empathy where and when I wanted. I don’t know, but I did feel bad for the kitten!

J: The kitten lived! I made a note that I would totally be the lady who tries to save the cat and dies!

G: I just think Christian Bale does such a convincing job carving this monster out of flesh and muscle that I see life, I see society in him, and it makes the performance and the film just that much more horrifying and ultimately difficult to digest. Even as a teen, I felt like I had to really like it, because it was what all my friends were doing. The film was like the cinematic equivalent of coke.

J: So, like Patrick Bateman, you just wanted to fit in and be like everyone else!

G: Kind of! But I think I still do want to fit in, in some ways. Like, I want to join the cool kids in the Letterboxd club and give it four stars and talk endlessly about how this film changed my life, but I won’t, because I can’t. Instead, I take solace in being a loner, holding my three star rating like a third place trophy.

J: Everyone wants to fit in to some extent, but remember: it’s hip to be square.

G: I will say, watching it now, 18 years later, and seeing what Mary Harron did with its source material: it’s staggering how Hollywood is still so unwilling to let women helm genre pieces, or you know do whatever the hell they want! She piles biting satire, horror, moments of inspired slasher and the action shoot ’em up all into one film, and she does it with such grace!

J: I saw today that Mary Harron is going to direct Matt Smith in a movie about Charles Manson, which is exciting, but it’s still so insane to me how sparse her career has been!

G: I saw that too! Yeah, I’m dumbfounded how meagre her filmography is. I really like what she did with I Shot Andy Warhol, and she directed 370 minutes of Alias Grace, though I haven’t seen it yet.

J: I haven’t seen Alias Grace yet either (I’m a bad Canadian, that’s like all our women in one show) and I didn’t care for The Moth Diaries but still, she only has like four feature films in a 20+ year career? Absolutely ridiculous!

G: It’s crazy! I think American Psycho and Near Dark are two perfect examples of women helming films that fuse together multiple genres in such a unique and refreshing way. On one end, you have Kathryn Bigelow reuniting three actors from Aliens, which was such a tremendous hit, and getting them to work with two rather unknown young actors, Adrian Pasdar and Jenny Wright, and what comes out of it is a melting pot of the noir, western and gothic vampire. Then you have Harron, who puts these young, up and coming actors in a film that manages to be all these different things at once, and like Near Dark, it winds up a cult classic that shoots a lot of its actors into the spotlight. Except, Bigelow sort of became the exception when it came to jumping off for women, .

J: What’s great about Near Dark is that it totally holds up! It came out weeks after The Lost Boys, which don’t get me wrong I ADORE, but it’s straight up 80s camp, whereas Near Dark is much more timeless.

G: Oh totally! It never quite embraces the vibe of the 80’s the way Kiefer and his vamp cronies do in The Lost Boys. Though Near Dark is another film that’s now widely popular, that I only kind of like, though I think it’s very well made, especially for it being a solo debut.

J: Yeah, I like Near Dark a lot for the reasons you said, its inventiveness and the way it blends genres, but I don’t quite love it the way some people do.

G: Near Dark and American Psycho, for me at least, are two films that have a great eye behind the camera, but if you removed Bill Paxton and Christian Bale, I think you’d have two genre pieces that wouldn’t quite stand the test of time and be what they are today. This obviously comes off as me, some guy, heralding two male performances while stripping merit from two strong female directors.

J: Ha! Greg’s contribution to women in horror month is giving all the credit to the dudes!

G: No, no, crap! That isn’t what I mean, since I don’t think that the films sole strength and worth rest on the shoulders of their male performers. Fuck.

J: No, I see what you’re saying! I think Christian Bale’s performance is what centres the film in a lot of ways, but of course Mary Harron is the one who got this performance from him. She knew what to look for and what to ask for — a lot of actors could have played it campier or more evil and the movie wouldn’t have worked the same. They balance the two.

G: Well, if anyone wants to come rip my feminist card from my hands, I’ll be right over here!

J: Does your feminist card have embossed type on bone-coloured card stock?

G: Yeah, it even has a watermark!

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