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AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000) ****1/2 movie review by COOP

Posted on May 14th, 2008
Posted on May 14th, 2008

One of the unwritten rules in creating a Hollywood-style film is that the main character must be likable. I’ve found that there are exceptions in certain cases, including experimental and horror films. “American Psycho”, adapted from the notorious novel by Bret Easton Ellis, is both experimental and horror. Because of this, many will hate the film, but it’s really all a matter of understanding the point of this smart and grisly satire.

The novel itself was much more graphic and just as controversial. Bret Easton Ellis is well known for his books that dive headfirst into the rich, urban underbelly of decay. One of which includes “Less than Zero”. You might remember the film version where Robert Downey Jr. foreshadowed his real-life decent into drug addiction. “American Psycho” has a similar flavor of how decadence can create monsters in our society.

Taking place in the excess of the 1980’s, the film focuses on Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a young executive for an investment firm in New York. His obsession with physical fitness, hygiene, and material possessions ultimately lead him to commit murders, simply because he’s bored, rich, and besides… Who would suspect a yuppie? Certainly not his girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon), his secretary (Chloe Sevigny) or a meddling detective (Willem Dafoe). The more he gets away with it, the more reckless, brutal and insane he becomes. He soon realizes that he wants to be caught. He hates what he’s become and eventually goes on a mass killing spree in an attempt to end it all.

It’s ironic that the “American” psycho in this film happens to be a British actor. Christian Bale does a great job as the insane protagonist. He comes off as cheesy and phony, but that is the nature of his egotistical character, and when called for, he becomes intensely frightening. Even though there is a supporting cast, the focus lies completely on Bale. The camera is rarely off of him throughout the entire film. The rest of the cast does well, but it never focuses on them long enough to make us care anything for them. I believe this was a deliberate attempt to try to show the audience how the killer sees them… as insignificant victims.

Some are quick to call this film misogynistic on the surface, but it may come as a surprise to know that the director is a woman. This is Mary Harron’s second feature. Her first being the critically acclaimed cult film, “I Shot Andy Warhol”. Her feminine touch is prevalent throughout “American Psycho” and I believe she is responsible for keeping the project from turning into a lowbrow, B-movie. Instead she made an impressively shot and insightful adaptation, faithful to the original novel.

The film isn’t a cut and dried, Hollywood horror movie by any means. It is a surreal and exaggerated world these characters are in. Bateman gets away with his crimes only because no one, not even his friends, can tell him apart from any of the other “Wall Street” Yuppies. They are all too self-consumed to listen when he drops hints or even flat out confesses to murder. The tone even reaches into dark comedy when Bateman kills to the tunes of uppity 80’s songs such as Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to be Square”. (Side note: Unable to find the humor in the scene, Huey Lewis filed a lawsuit to have their song removed from the soundtrack after seeing the film.) Many people were quick to judge this film before it came out and few understood its meaning. Simply, it is a satirical, dark comedy and a horror film. It’s about the evils of materialism, decadence, apathy and the loss of individuality. It did a very good job of getting all of these points across, but most people will probably only see it for the violence and chaos it brings to the screen. A-list art film or B-grade horror flick? People will debate upon it for a long time to come. Either way, it made quite a stir and that can be translated as a success.

This one narrowly escaped the dreaded “NC-17” rating, a financial kiss-of-death for the studio that produces it. The studio is still self-conscious about the subject matter that its release has been limited. Due to the “R” rating, scenes of violence, gore, sex and nudity will certainly limit its audience (especially the kids). However, horror movies often appeal to couples on dates. All well and good, as long as they are aware of what they are getting into… This is more of a philosophical, experimental film than your standard horror movie.

Scale of 1-5:
4 ½

Most refreshing aspect of the film:
The visual style. Everything is done in monotone colors, sterile settings and post-modern, 80’s art décor. In my mind, it captured the imagery of the book precisely the way I imagined it. Also, I can really appreciate movies that can pull off having an anti-hero as the protagonist. They always seem much more three-dimensional than the standard heroes of Hollywood films.

Biggest gripe:
The fact that few people will get to see this interesting movie. The distributors were so worried about its content, that they only gave it a very limited release in the U.S. They even went so far as to give us suggestion cards to fill out at the theater I saw it in. To me, that just showed how little faith “Lions Gate Films” had in this project. As one theater patron said… “Why are they handing out score cards? Does this mean the movie’s going to be bad?” That’s exactly the image the studio is promoting when they give one of their own films a vote of no confidence.

Biggest surprise:
The fact that it doesn’t flinch. It’s rare to see a film that doesn’t cut out every little scene that might invoke the wrath of the MPAA. Even the tamest of films fear the “NC-17” label (you’d be surprised some of the piddly things they try to censor). If the producers had flinched, then “American Psycho” would never had been made. In fact, “American Psycho” got off easy. The MPAA said that it only needed to trim 20 seconds to receive the “R” rating. Those 20 seconds consisted only of sex. However, all of the gore scenes were perfectly acceptable? I’ll never understand those wacky sensors.

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