Before donning the cape to play Batman, before dropping 60 pounds to play the emaciated Machinist, Christian Bale buffed up to play one of his most memorable characters — arguably one of the most nastily iconic in film history — Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000).
Bret Easton Ellis’s violent, misogynistic 1991 book was greeted with derision by critics, women’s groups and even other authors, so when a film adaptation was announced, it seemed unlikely that it could ever become a reality. Production stalled as directors and stars popped in and out of the picture. David Cronenberg, Oliver Stone, Ewan McGregor and Leonardo DiCaprio were all in the running at one point, and Johnny Depp expressed interest, but nothing ever came of it.
Producer Edward Pressman, who shepherded the project for years, said that Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) was the only director who conveyed a clear solution to bring the ultraviolent novel to the screen. Indeed, Harron’s (and co-writer Guinevere Turner) idea of making the story the blackest of black comedies was not only inspired but assured the film’s cult status for years to come. As a matter of fact, my inspiration for writing this piece was re-watching the film on Netflix recently and reading a humorous review of the Apple Watch by none other than Patrick Bateman.
Rewatching Bale’s performance, as he obsessively describes his morning ritual or waxes rhapsodic over cloying ’80s music, is hysterical. It’s also brilliantly controlled. And that’s why he’s the solo shout out in this special “Great Performances” post.
In the first of his many body transformations for a role, Bale worked out with a trainer three hours a day, six days a week, in order to achieve the perfect shape that he fearlessly displays here, naked and blood-splattered.
As for the inspiration behind his character, Harron said that it was none other than Tom Cruise, whose “intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes” was just the look that Bale wanted to bring.
The film is set in Manhattan during the very height of the vacuous Reagan ’80s, when the young stockbrokers were riding (and getting) high, treating women like cattle and comparing business cards as if they were indications of penis size. Bateman’s acquaintances and colleagues don’t notice his cold-bloodedness because they’re just as as shallow as he is. Being seen in the right restaurants and clubs with the right clothes and the right girls are all that matters to this crowd.
The women in this film are all portrayed as victims, but Harron and Turner give them recognizably human aspects and problems intentionally lacking in the guys. Reese Witherspoon, as Bateman’s fiance, so anxious to have a perfect marriage, is blind to just how awful her betrothed is. The woman he’s having an affair with (Samantha Mathis) is likewise too drug-addled to notice. And his pathetic assistant (Chloe Sevigny) is so insecure that she positively glows when he pays her the smallest of compliments.
The only man who displays any emotion is closeted Luis Carruthers (Silicon Valley’s Matt Ross), who harbors a secret crush for Bateman and thinks he’s finally getting his wish fulfilled when the killer sneaks up behind him in the bathroom, hands encased in leather gloves, ready to strangle. It’s an uncomfortable scene as Carruthers turns around, thinks Bateman’s coming onto him and kisses the gloves, telling him how long he’s waited for this.
Andrjez Sekula’s photography of Gideon Ponte’s antiseptic production design is spot-on, especially in Bateman’s perfect condo, where he’s laid down newspapers in preparation for chopping up loathed associate Paul Allen (Jared Leto).
The three-way sex scene with two prostitutes (Cara Seymour and Turner) is at first hilarious as Bateman stares at himself in the mirror and flexes as he thrusts away. Then it turns to horror when one of them screams and the sheets become drenched in blood. Then, of course, there’s the famous running-down-the-hallway naked with chainsaw sequence, and Bale’s unbridled glee as Bateman stalks and kills his prey is priceless. And in a club, he tells a girl, “I’m in murders and executions,” to which she blithely responds, “I don’t know anything about mergers and acquisitions.”
For a film wedged so firmly in a specific era and place, it’s a tribute to the creators that it’s standing the test of time. It’s got its own Tumblr, of course, and just this week there were posts entitled “XX Things You Didn’t Know About American Psycho” appearing online. Pretty good considering it was declared doomed from the start and Bale was even warned by his friends that taking the role was career suicide.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to return some videotapes.