***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Josh Lucas
screenplay by Mary Harron & Guinevere Turner, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis
directed by Mary Harron
by Bryant Frazer Books are often said to be "unfilmable," but it's the rare text that can be described as "unprintable." That was the fate that nearly befell Bret Easton Ellis's notoriously graphic first-person serial-killer memoir, American Psycho. Comprising mainly page after page of vacuous conversation among young and moneyed Wall Street types and littered with references to high-end brand names, American Psycho's internal monologue reveals the wealth-addled mindset of Patrick Bateman, an investment banker and tasteless sociopath who specializes in mergers and acquisitions and expresses himself through hateful diatribes, hilariously wrong-headed pop-culture critiques, and the occasional torturous homicide, described in sickening detail. As the book neared release, publisher Simon & Schuster faced pressure to drop it from both inside and outside the company. Feminists attacked it as a how-to manual for misogyny, murder, and mutilation. TIME published a passage about a woman being skinned, while SPY excerpted a scene describing oral sex with a severed head. S&S's own marketing department was reportedly queasy, and even the cover designer assigned to the book balked. Then, in November 1990, barely a month before its planned appearance on bookstore shelves, S&S yanked the book from its schedule. American Psycho survived, of course. Knopf picked it up and issued it as a Vintage paperback original in early 1991. But a number of booksellers declined to stock it, and a preponderance of critics excoriated it. Even so, it was enough of a success to catch the attention of producer Edward R. Pressman, who developed it as a feature project for Lionsgate, then an upstart film distributor based in Vancouver.
American Psycho is not one of those novels that suggests itself as a movie. The text gets its peculiar flavour from Bateman's fixation on status, designer labels, fancy consumer gadgetry, and chic menu items at tony eateries--the book is loaded with endless lists of superficial details that take the place of real descriptions of people and places (which the characters are constantly confusing, anyway). It's often funny, as when Bateman deploys tedious pages full of critical encomia to the work of Phil Collins or Whitney Houston, but also numbing; the unhinged descriptions of sex and violence read completely differently in context, where they're obviously part-and-parcel with the monotonous, overly detailed tone of the text as a whole, than they do isolated and excerpted. What's more, there is no comeuppance or moral reckoning for the story's vicious protagonist, who suffers from nothing more tangible than an existential crisis throughout. Nobody knows or cares that Patrick Bateman is a killer--even his attempted confessions are ignored or misconstrued. How do you translate that to the screen?
Despite the difficulty, there were several possible paths for American Psycho. Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon was stalking it at one point, with Johnny Depp in the Bateman role. David Cronenberg took a stab at making it as a Brad Pitt vehicle, commissioning a screenplay by Ellis himself that climaxed with a musical number atop the World Trade Center set to Barry Manilow's "Daybreak." ("It's daybreak, if you want to believe/It can be daybreak, ain't no time to grieve.") When the project ended up with I Shot Andy Warhol director Mary Harron, she cast Christian Bale in the lead. Bale was probably still best-known for Newsies and Swing Kids at the time, so Lionsgate wasn't thrilled; at one point, the studio approached Leonardo DiCaprio and, in a brief detour, director Oliver Stone became interested. Eventually, Harron was allowed to make her movie with Bale, co-writer Guinevere Turner (known at the time for writing and acting in the lesbian romance Go Fish), and a $10 million budget. To some degree, time was on their side. Since the original backlash against American Psycho, films like The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en had made the flamboyant serial killer and his Grand Guignol trappings a popular trope in crime dramas. Further, the queasy and very public details of the Jeffrey Dahmer serial murder/cannibalism case had, perhaps, made Patrick Bateman's pathology seem a little less shocking. Thanks to the necessity of clearing any mention of brands, the endless details of fashion designers and beauty regimens are gone, replaced by a more reasonable and expository voiceover. The language has been toned down to omit racial slurs, making Bateman slightly less loathsome. Also missing are the book's hellish murder tableaux: there's nothing here to raise the eyebrows of anyone who's a fan of TV police procedurals in the vein of "CSI", let alone your average FANGORIA reader, save perhaps the one scene in which a doggo gets it.
Instead, the film gets its unusual charge from a one-of-a-kind performance by Bale, who talks throughout like a cross between Jim Carrey in The Mask and Rod Serling narrating "The Twilight Zone". (Submitted for your approval: a hateful, hugely insecure dork with some skeletons in his closet, a severed head in the fridge, and more money than he knows what to do with.) In Bale's interpretation, Bateman approaches the murder of his friend Paul Allen (Jared Leto) as a piece of performance art, preparing the killing zone in advance--newspaper on the floor, furniture carefully covered with protective sheets--with the care of a Broadway set decorator and donning a clear plastic raincoat to protect him from the geysers of blood that will erupt after he swings an axe into Allen's face. (It's impossible to imagine Showtime's "Dexter" without Harron's American Psycho.) The scene in the film incorporates Bateman's monologue on "Hip to be Square" by Huey Lewis and the News, which Bale delivers with a goofy theatricality, almost like he might be kidding us, that departs from the painfully sincere Ellis original. I love the unexpectedly surreal quality, but I also think Bale gives too much of an impression that he's in on the joke; it feels like an edgy "Saturday Night Live" skit.
Much more successful is the bit later on where Bateman brings home two prostitutes, picking up one on the street and ordering the other by phone. The ensuing sex scene is written in the book like one of those overly detailed letters to PENTHOUSE; on film, Harron treats it like a desultory three-way from a porn video, but sets it to "Sussudio" by Phil Collins. ("A personal favourite," says Bateman, after delivering his pro-Collins monologue.) Bale spends his time in bed up on his knees, thrusting at one of the women from behind while flexing and looking up to admire his own physique in the mirror. The display of narcissism is wildly funny and yet completely organic to a character who's constantly congratulating himself on how good he looks. (Notably, this consensual sex scene is the one part of the film the MPAA had a problem with, demanding the elision of about 18 seconds of footage and the trimming of one line of dialogue to refer to an "ass" rather than an "asshole" before granting an R rating.) Making Bateman a funny character is a gamble--the book is also funny, but not broadly so, and at no point does the humour subsume its suffusing sense of horror and despair--but it pays off by adding something resembling entertainment value to Bateman's story.
The look of the film is geared towards creating appropriate or provocative settings for Bateman's character. Production designer Gideon Ponte reflects Bateman's bland tastes in the white-on-white decor of his apartment, while the gleaming stainless-steel cabinets and appliances in the kitchen, suggestive of the city morgue, indicate his compulsions. DP Andrzej Sekula captures a plethora of handsome, precisely-lit close-ups of Bateman that, coupled with a few wider shots displaying his mostly nude body, add tension to the film by forcing viewers into a visual intimacy with him that may be distressing. Harron plays another sympathy-for-the-devil card by dwelling at some length on Bateman's interviews with a police detective (Willem Dafoe, just as good as you'd expect) who may or may not suspect foul play in the case of Allen's abrupt disappearance. Emphasizing one of the few narrative threads from the book that does follow crime-drama conventions, Harron probably manipulates audiences into reflexively rooting for Bateman not to be discovered. After all, who buys a ticket to a movie called American Psycho because they want to see a guy not kill other people?
Yet mostly, Harron emphasizes Bateman's shortcomings and insecurities. The film's metaphorical showpiece, and probably its most famous scene, has nothing to do with murders and executions. Instead, it's about Bateman and his Wall Street pals--played by a current who's-who of fortysomething actors (Bill Sage, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, and Matt Ross)--comparing business cards. The scene is in the book, yes, but Harron amplifies it, eliciting from her boys'-club ensemble a hilariously intense array of approving, envious, and deeply appreciative facial expressions. While American Psycho's female characters were deliberately undeveloped in the novel, Harron casts them like equally plum roles, handing the parts to the likes of Reese Witherspoon (Evelyn, Bateman's fiancé), Samantha Mathis (Courtney, his girlfriend), and Chloë Sevigny (Jean, his office assistant). Witherspoon and Mathis, especially, look a little lost in their pretty rooms with their pretty clothes; prey for predators. But the MVP may be Cara Seymour as Christie, the hooker Bateman picks up--twice--in the meatpacking district. To some extent, Christie is the only character audience members can identify with. She wears a skeptical expression throughout her first sexual encounter with Bateman, and the frown only deepens the second time he picks her up. "I actually might need a little surgery after last time," she tells him, but Christie's tragedy is that the money really is that precious to her. She can't help but agree to an encore performance. It's an unwise decision that soon has her escaping his apartment, scrambling down the hall in a negligee as Bateman chases after her, holding a chainsaw at crotch level, in an explicit parody of slasher movies. Seymour is a frantic runner and a committed screamer and you root for her to get out, to be the Final Girl. Alas, it ends badly for her.
The long sequence ends when Bateman, looking down at Christie's body from a height, lets loose with a barbaric, monosyllabic cry of triumph. It's an expression of dominance, and it comes at a narrative moment when Bateman seems powerful and, perhaps, having just murdered two more women in cold blood with no reason to believe he will be held to account, invincible. Harron, though, suggests something else about Bateman: that he's pathetic and delusional. His killings may be nothing more than fantasies. His lawyer claims that he just had lunch with one of Bateman's supposedly long-dead victims. Because instances of mistaken identity are woven through both book and film, no one in the story can be considered a reliable witness, but Harron comes down harder than Ellis on the side of Bateman having an overly active imagination. For example, she adds a new scene where Jean slips into his office and goes through his datebook, finding it full to bursting with crudely-drawn depictions of death and mutilation--all of his frustration with women and the world around him rendered in ballpoint ink.
This gets at perhaps the biggest difference between the book and the film. In the Ellis original, Bateman is a frightening bundle of rage and hatred, a twisted product of socially sanctioned greed and self-absorption who would be a loathsome creature even if he never hurt anyone. In Harron's telling, he's just a narcissist with disturbingly sadistic fantasies--a buffoonish exemplar of white male privilege and what became known decades after the book's publication as "toxic masculinity." Crucially, Bale's performance humanizes him by making him so often a comic figure. American Psycho the novel is a disturbing howl into the void, impossibly vulgar and unavoidably confrontational, but American Psycho the movie is more seemly--over the years, it's come to be accepted as social satire and even as a clearly feminist work. That's not a misunderstanding of the original as much as it is a clarification of it. For better and for worse, that's Harron's accomplishment--in her telling, the work is robbed of its startling visceral qualities, but it's much harder for meatheads to misinterpret. Partly out of commercial necessity, and maybe partly as a middle finger to the "Patrick Bateman is my role model" crowd, the film does American Psycho a double-edged favour by transforming it into a cult artifact that a reasonable viewer can stomach at the expense of carving out its fangs.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Lionsgate gives the unrated version of American Psycho, shot in Super 35, a new lease on life with an upgrade to UHD Blu-ray Disc. The 2.40:1, 2160p transfer has a more film-like texture than the previous 2.35:1/1080p Lionsgate BD, thanks in part to a cleaner, more organic look around high-contrast edges, which no longer have edge-enhancement halos, and a fresh colour pass that takes a touch of yellow-green jaundice out of skin tones. The UHD wins on pure detail, too. A critical comparison of a single close-up of Bale from the business-card showdown reveals more details in skin complexion, hair--including the tiny hairs around Bale's earlobes, individually discernible for the first time--and even the tiny twinkle in his eyes, which appeared as an indistinct blur in HD but is properly resolved at 4K. What draws your attention to that twinkle is an HDR colour grade that accentuates it as a specular highlight in the scene, along with the edge gleam of sunlight hitting his slicked-back hair from behind. HDR does the sometimes cramped-feeling American Psycho a huge service by livening up drably-coloured office and apartment interiors with extra dynamic headroom in the highlights of the image and improving the illusion that, say, bright sunlight is streaming in through a certain set of windows. Likewise, pinprick colours and lights in the background of night exteriors are amplified as you'd expect.
My sole complaints are that shadows are occasionally emphasized too much, nearly crushing out near-black detail, and Lionsgate's grain management can seem too aggressive. Most shots feature appropriate levels of organic grain, but a few relatively dark scenes look scrubbed to the point where they're slightly glossy. I really noticed this in close-ups captured with low-key lighting during Bateman's phoned-in confession at 83 minutes into the film. Bale's face is appropriately sweaty, but should it look quite as shiny as it does here? But let's be fair: it's still a big improvement over the previous release. More problematic is a brief but distracting shimmering artifact on Cara Seymour's back as she bathes in Bateman's apartment (at about 39:50) that looks like nothing you'd ever see on film. I suspect it has something to do with the way HDR increases contrast in the highlights, combined with zealous degraining. The effect is not present at all in the BD transfer, but then the BD resolves hardly anything in the fine details of this particular shot--suggesting it may have been heavily noise-reduced all along. Also, there is some occasional horizontal jitter visible in the frame, presumably caused by gate weave at the head or tail of film reels, that probably should have been stabilized. On the whole, however, this is an excellent transfer. (I reviewed HDR10 playback; the Dolby Vision picture should be more impressive still.)
Audio receives a Dolby Atmos upgrade. My system supports only the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD core but even so the new mix is impressively voluminous, with subtle directional effects. The distant-thunder rumbles that play underneath the business-card scene come alive like pieces of a David Lynch soundscape, more distinct and more uncanny than before. Further, there's a real sense of space in the thump and boom of the nightclub scenes, and Bateman's pop cuts are slightly remixed to take advantage of the surround channels, coming across as even bigger and slicker than the album versions. That "Sussudio" sounds this good on disc makes Bateman's energetic three-way porno exercise all the more perverse. I can only imagine the additional height channels add more 'zazz in an Atmos-equipped system.
The disc contains not one but two audio commentaries by Harron, the first recorded for DVD back in 2005 and the second laid down recently, in 2018. It's a cool idea--surely her perspective on the film has changed over the years, right? Well, not really. I almost suspect Harron created a set of note cards back in 2005 to guide her on a scene-by-scene basis, then dug out exactly that set of note cards to cover the same ground this year. It's a good commentary, but you don't need to hear it twice. I suggest sticking with the 2005 version, if only because some of her recollections seem a little fresher and more detailed. (Also, it's a wall-to-wall yakfest, whereas the 2018 version has a few stretches of dead air.) She does dedicate additional time on the new track to discussing casting and performance, declaring Bale's to be "one of the most committed performances of the last 20 years on film." She also insists that she and Turner were "not afraid of being accused of being misogynist" by virtue of being women, and offers what I thought was a surprising defense of Patrick Bateman: "American Psycho is a monster movie, like a Frankenstein--someone who can't help who he is, born morally and emotionally deformed."
Harron's commentary is backed up by another 2005 yakker recorded by Turner, who spends more time delving into the psychology of the characters and recounting the thinking behind many choices made in the adaptation process. She remembers being especially impressed by Bale's dedication to the role when she overheard him using his Bateman voice off-camera when he was on the telephone; she says some crew members were shocked to hear him speaking in his natural British accent at the wrap party. She discusses her own small-but-showy role in the film in some detail, including the negotiation over her nude scene: She agreed not to make any deliberate efforts to cover her breasts, and Harron agreed not to "linger" on them. (She seems less clear on why it was her, rather than a body double, that had to spend hours covered in blood on the floor of Bateman's bathroom.)
More extras have been held over from Lionsgate's original 2005 Special Edition DVD, starting with a pair of featurettes with an oddly self-conscious aesthetic that is, I guess, meant to ape late-1980s MTV. "American Psycho: From Book to Screen" (49 mins., SD upscaled to 1080p) features input from Harron, Turner, and Pressman as well as producer Chris Hanley, critic Nathan Lee, FILM COMMENT's Gavin Smith (now of Cohen Media Group), crime writer Gil Reavill, Grove/Atlantic Publisher Morgan Entrekin, film critic Amy Taubin, and music group Loma Lynda's then-frontwoman Sarah Ellquist, who reads from a prepared script and mispronounces Jay McInerney. (That's OK; a little later on, Entrekin mispronounces manga.) The first part of the feature, "The Book," recaps Ellis's early career and the controversy surrounding the novel's publication, in addition to Harron's initial take on it as an Evelyn Waugh-style social satire. The second part, "The Deal," recounts the arduous process of actually getting the movie greenlit, for instance the parade of actors who were considered and the time Leonardo DiCaprio spent circling the role, over Harron's objections, after the studio made him an offer. Cronenberg fans will be tempted by Pressman's recollection that he wanted to shoot a "black-and-white, X-rated" version of the book. Part 3, "The Film," is where the hot takes fly, as Lee, Smith, and Taubin consider American Psycho critically. So far so good, but part 4, "The Pornography of Killing: An Essay by Holly Willis" is one of the more ridiculous special features I've seen. This academic text by USC School of Cinematic Arts Research Professor Holly Willis--which compares Ellis to the Marquis de Sade and Georges Bataille--is probably best absorbed in print form, rather than being read aloud to camera by a cool rock-chick wearing sunglasses.
In "The 1980s: Downtown" (32 mins., SD upscaled to 1080p), ex-scenesters recall their experiences and impressions of Manhattan in the '80s. Entrekin, Reavill, Smith, Taubin, and Turner, along with erstwhile club kid James St. James and former Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, provide the talking heads. These conversations are not directly related to American Psycho; subjects for discussion include 1980s fashion, performance art, nightclubs and sex clubs, and the AIDS epidemic. It sounds awful, but it's actually pretty engaging and benefits from being a little out-of-the-ordinary for this kind of package. A collection of five deleted scenes (12 mins., SD upscaled to 1080p) is interspersed for some reason with behind-the-scenes soundbites of various cast members on set discussing the book, its themes, and the production. The scenes play with or without commentary by Harron, who especially laments the loss of a sex scene with Patrick and Courtney in which she yells at him for wearing the wrong type of condom. Unfortunately, none of these elisions is completely finished: the sound is unmixed, the edits are rough, and though the video is upconverted, the picture is sub-DVD quality. Lionsgate bundles the 4K platter with a digital download code and a Blu-ray Disc for backwards-compatibility, though it's just the 2007 BD and does not reflect the new 4K remaster.