What – was Norman Bates – Japanese?
I read something in a true crime book about how serial killers used to be an upper class phenomenon. Barons and marquis preying on the peasants, on down to Jack the Ripper theories and that sort of thing. And now, supposedly, all our serial killers are from below the poverty line, and they hunt victims almost exclusively from a class above.
I’ve always thought that this idea was bunk – an easy mangling of available data and statistics. For one thing, the royal psychos were wont to operate with relative impunity with the aid of several servants, while the serial killer, by definition, works alone and in secret, without any apparent motive.
Whether you agree or not, in substance American Psycho brings that theory around full circle. Patric Bateman (Christian Bale) is one of the bored elite in the New York of the 1980s, at the top of the food chain. He has a job on Wall Street, where he makes a great deal of money doing nothing. His appearance, opinions and personality are all a shallow creation of glossy fashion magazines. There’s nothing you’d notice that would distinguish him from any of his bored, useless, wealthy peers – in fact, he’s commonly being mistaken for someone else.
The only time Bateman (a not-too-clever play on Norman Bates) is even remotely human, is when he lets down his mask of sanity and becomes an inhuman beast – savagely striking out and destroying women, bums and animals. As if to reinforce his elitist agenda, he appears to get away with his heinous crimes with ridiculous ease, never even coming close to getting caught. His own fiancée (Reese Witherspoon) keeps herself perfectly ignorant of his crimes, as well as his affair with her best friend (Samantha Mathis). No one seems to notice his crimes at all, that is until he chooses a victim from his own circle – committing a murder, for the first time, out of anger and jealousy. Making his co-worker Paul Owen (Jared Leto) “disappear” leads to an investigation by police detective Donald Kimball (Willem Defoe). Kimball, who seems to covet the lifestyle of Bateman and his friends, can only serve as a mockery – a twisted version of Bateman’s perfect face and body.
Though we only see, um, bits and pieces of Bateman’s hobby at first, the more he descends from his ivory tower to gain humanity (sick and psychotic humanity, but humanity nonetheless), the closer he comes to getting caught. A prostitute he’s chosen nearly escapes from his house of horrors. Kimball appears to be coming close to cracking his alibi for the Owen murder. He eventually finds himself running through the night streets of downtown Manhattan, fleeing from the police and shooting anyone he thinks might become a witness.
It all boils down to a twist ending, which I won’t reveal in case you don’t see it coming. I’ll only say that if there’s something even more frightening than a psycho with a chainsaw, it might be a psycho without one.
The myth that slasher movies promote violence against women is headed off in this adaptation of by the choice of Mary Harron to direct and co-write (with actress Guinevere Turner) a very dark and often funny script, based on the novel by Brett Easton Ellis. The point is that Bateman gets his kicks preying mostly on women because they are the most cliche victims he can envision, plus they are easily lured into his clutches by good looks and money. I’m not defending his obvious misogyny, only saying that Harron and Turner place it properly as part and parcel of his insane egotism. Bateman will swat a fly, if he knows no one will catch him.
His nightmare is not that he’ll be caught and punished for his crimes – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.