American Psycho: Doing the Wrong Things for the Right Reasons
Since it's release nearly 20 years ago there have been few movies that polarized audiences more than Mary Harron's American Psycho. The book on which it was based was divisive in it's own right, but even the author Bret Easton Ellis said he believed the movie "clarified the themes of the novel". The film version not only provides viewers with this clarification but in my opinion elevates the source material and perfectly uses the medium to do so, while breaking nearly every rule of film making and storytelling imaginable.
American Psycho and more broadly the genre of satire inherently relies on this type of disobedience, but it has not been this well executed since Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. Everything from the dialogue to the editing to Christian Bale's fantastically exaggerated performance provide the absurdity that the story and more importantly the story's themes require. If American Psycho had been made "the right way" the whole thing would fall apart and in fact would probably achieve the opposite of it's intended message.
The first general rule of storytelling is to make sure to have a likable main character. They are who the audience will see the story through and provide them with a connection to the events so they can be related to real life. Not only does American Psycho not have a likable main character, Patrick Batemen is absolutely reprehensible and self admittedly inhuman.
The movie takes it one step further and makes pretty much every single character in it horrible to a comedic level. The only person who could be in any way described as likable is Bateman's secretary Jean, who is constantly viewed as inconsequential...so much so that she is not even given a last name.
Once you have your likable main character down the next step is to give them a journey to go on. On this journey they must go through a series of challenges and grow and change as a result of overcoming them, usually for the better. American Psycho has almost no real plot to speak of and Bateman never learns from, pays for, or is even more than slightly challenged.
The obstacles that Bateman must overcome are frankly not real problems at all and are certainly not ones that would result in his self improvement. Things like getting a reservation at a restaurant slightly better than the one he is in now and finding a good bathroom to do cocaine in. In the scene where he verbally abuses the woman behind the desk at his dry cleaners, he does not have to overcome trying to hide the obvious blood stains on the sheets he has brought in but the fact that the employees can't understand English. As a side obstacle he must avoid having lunch with another customer who he clearly does not consider worth even a minute of his time.
The best examples of Bateman not being challenged and therefore not growing are his interactions with Detective Donald Kimball. Each and every time they meet Kimball does the exact opposite of what a detective is supposed to do when interrogating a suspect. Kimball constantly provides Bateman with information relating to the case and continuously convinces Bateman of his innocence.
Once you have those pesky plot and characters nailed down now you need to find yourself a bankable lead actor who can get people to go to see your movie. Despite how well known and respected he is now, at the time Christian Bale was a young actor known for starring in the children's movie Newsies and a few other supporting roles. Even after getting the job he and director Mary Harron were temporarily replaced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Oliver Stone respectively. Only after Leo left the project to make The Beach were Bale and Harron returned to their roles and even then Harron had to fight with the studio to keep Bale in the lead.
Bale himself had difficulty taking the role at all. He was at a pivotal point in his career where he could either continue as a character actor or transform into a lead. He has talked about how Anthony Perkins became typecast after his role as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and that he had been told many times that he would incur the same fate if portrayed the investment banker moonlighting as a psycho killer. Instead Bale viewed the role as exciting and ignored the threats of career suicide and has gone on to have one of the most varied careers an actor has ever had in the modern era.
Now it comes time to wrap everything up and put an ending on the story. There are basically two schools of thought on how to handle an ending. Traditionally stories from the western view of the world like to have concrete, circular endings where all of the issues are resolved and there is a clear outcome. Eastern stories tent to be more open ended and allow the audience to come to their own conclusions based on the events that unfolded. For a movie with the word American in it's title, American Psycho has one of the more deliberately eastern style endings to a movie you will ever see. The conclusion is not only open for discussion but is intentionally dismissive of any one conclusion as truth.
Even in the closing monologue delivered by Bateman he talks about how he has not improved or grown, but devolved into more of a psychopath than he was when the movie began. Then in the final lines of the movie, while literally staring into the eyes of the audience he leaves us with "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 meant nothing."
American Psycho is a beautifully haunting and sickening movie whose horror is almost impossible to replicate. Thank goodness for directors like Mary Harron and actors like Christian Bale for their willingness to take risks and putting the good ole phrase "rules are meant to be broken" to good use.