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This Is Not an Exit: ‘American Psycho’ at 20

On the 20th anniversary of Mary Harron’s adaptation of the controversial Bret Easton Ellis novel, we pay tribute to the first great horror movie of the 21st century

He has to go return some videotapes: Christian Bale in the 2000 movie adaptation of 'American Psycho.'

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It is April, in the year of our Lord 2000. I am sighing with relief that the whole Y2K thing had turned out to be just a lot of techno-paranoia. I am discussing the recent political primaries, as both Albert Arnold Gore Jr. and George Walker Bush had secured their parties’ nominations the month before. I need to go return some videotapes. I am sitting in a movie theater, listening to a man — wow, is that the kid from Empire of the Sun? How did he get so jacked? — talk about Huey Lewis and the News. It is a detailed analysis of the band’s album Fore. He is telling this to a guest, who is drunk and doesn’t notice the newspaper spread out on the floor. He is doing a little dance. He is buttoning up a clear rain slicker. He is smiling. And he is swinging a gleaming axe, downward and downward, into the person in front of him. Blood is covering his face. He seems, for the first time, to be happy. Like, really happy. Not just pretend-happy.

People scream. People laugh. I am laughing too. This is what you’re supposed to do, one of those two things. I am unnerved. So are the people around me. A couple get up to leave. But they can’t. This is not an exit.

Sauntering into multiplexes like a stockbroker with a Friday-night reservation at Dorsia, the movie adaptation of American Psycho entered the cultural bloodstream 20 years ago this week, with tongues already clucking and controversy already baked into its DNA. Bret Easton Ellis’ virtually unfilmable novel was a breakdown of Reagan-era narcissism smothered in splatter and literary brattitude, following the exploits of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street investment banker with a penchant for murder, torture, and rigorous, ritualized moisturizing. Its prose was so excessively horrific, so purposefully sadistic — the cruelty was the point — that it was easy to miss the critical skewering of a generation weaned on capitalism and consumerism underneath all the gore. Very easy, in fact. The original publisher dropped the book at the last minute, Ellis received death threats,  and critics carved it up with Bateman-esque fervor. A screen version wasn’t exactly a no-brainer. Besides, its author said, it was designed to be a story told on the page. “No one saw it as a movie,” Ellis admitted years later, “including myself and my representatives.”

Enter Mary Harron, an Ontario-born, L.A.-raised, Oxford-educated writer who’d made her way to New York just in time for punk rock to hit the Lower East Side. After logging years as a critic and journalist, she began writing and directing documentaries for the BBC in England; it was working on a news show’s segment on the furor surrounding American Psycho, which had just been published, that inspired her to pick up a copy and see what the big deal was. When Harron made her way back to the United States, she was just starting to research what would become her first feature film, I Shot Andy Warhol. While working on a project with Guinevere Turner, a writer-actor who’d helped pen the groundbreaking New Queer Cinema movie Go Fish, a producer reached out to her. Would Harron be interested in taking a look at a script based on Bret’s book? Instead, she and Turner began working from the ground up on a draft of their own. Sequences like the novel’s “human Habitrail” vignette were, naturally, cut out. The pointed look at how yuppie culture had curdled not just the financial sector but also the entire notion of American aspiration? That was pushed to the forefront.

Thus begins the story of how a look back at Eighties materialism, published in the dawn of the Nineties, became what’s arguably the first great horror movie of the 21st century — a slasher flick dressed in the tailored designer threads of a satire, or possibly the other way ’round. It was not an easy birth, by any account: Harron was briefly nudged off the film when Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh off of Titanic, began expressing interest in playing Bateman, which didn’t quite jibe with her vision. When she came back to it, complete with her choice for a lead — more on that gent in a second — the shoot in Toronto was besieged with protests and calls for businesses to boycott the production. A British tabloid declared it was the “most disgusting film of the year” before it was even finished, Harron recounted inThe New York Times, while several women’s organizations declared it misogynistic and a Florida-based lawyer threatened a lawsuit sight unseen. A premiere at Sundance ended with someone in the audience asking how Harron would feel if someone saw American Psycho and was then inspired to be a serial killer.

Audiences didn’t know what to make of it when it finally hit screens on April 14th, 2000; its deserved, proper cult-film status was still years away. Even then, however, you could glean how Harron and Co. had excavated the humor of Ellis’ story and used it as a sharpening stone. It’s a horror movie, one discreetly short on gore and grisliness — a lock of blond hair tucked into a breast pocket here, a glimpse of a head in a fridge there. When the movie finally does get around to a charnel-house set piece, complete with phallic chainsaws and spiral-staircase zoom-ins, you can almost hear Brian DePalma slow-clapping. But the dick-measuring gesture of a pile of platinum cards being thrown down to cover a bar bill immediately telegraphs that it’s also a comedy, albeit one that will end up being both black and bleak in equal measures. To listen to Bateman describe his endless morning routine in such excruciating detail and with such an emphasis on each step (“I use a deep-pore cleanser lotion … in the shower, a water-activated gel cleanser … then a honey-almond body scrub … then on the face, an exfoliating gel scrub …”) is to hear someone reciting commercial copy and catalog-item descriptions as if they were gospel. It’s a deadpan monologue that ends with a dead-eyed assurance that he’s someone who’s Not. Really. There. If that and the one-liners (“Will you keep it down, I’m trying to do drugs!”) and toxic-bro one-upmanship don’t convince you there’s an element of funny here, Christian Bale’s manic consumer’s-guide review of Huey Lewis should do the trick.

Ah, yes, Christian Bale. Before he was Batman, he was Bateman, and the former child actor/Little Women heartthrob tore into this role with what we now recognize as a characteristic, borderline-ridiculous sense of commitment. American Psycho marks the beginning of, or at least the official coming-out party for, Extreme Bale. We would get used to him losing an insane amount of weight, or gaining muscle bulk and/or a paunch, or pulling out an impressive number of Method-y tics, quirks, and accents for his characters. (A personal note: The one time I interviewed Bale, it was a full 10 minutes into our conversation before I realized he was speaking in the flat American voice he’d used for the film he’d just done.) But here, sinewy and ripped, affecting a preppy-set-to-subzero-temperature cadence, he is the epitome of what Tom Wolfe called the “Masters of the Universe.” The arrogance, the entitlement, the conspicuous modernism and brand-namedropping, the Gordon Gekko-chic shirts and Valentine Couture suits — he’s the alpha Wall Street player even if he is out-business-carded. (Damn you, eggshell with Romalian type.) And when the savagery comes, it’s pure scenery-chewing time, from all that snarling to that hip-shaking, SNL-sketch-level dance he does before dispatching a rival.

Only Bale also has to nail the fact that Bateman is, to quote Turner, “all surface and more surface,” and this is where he finds fertile ground to till. A lot of performers could do affectlessness, or rich-prick smugness, or boiling-over madness. Bale manages to combine all three while still making you think he’s mouthing transmissions beamed from far, far away. Harron has said that her direction to him was “to think of Bateman as a Martian who is trying to be a human being but keeps getting it wrong and ends up killing people.” Almost everything we see him do or see is a facsimile of human behavior. He brings up the right social-issue topics at dinner, sleeps with the right women (illicitly or otherwise), does the right drugs, goes to the right clubs and restaurants, says the right responses. Because this is what people in his position do, right? This is how you appear to be someone who can move through the world, unharmed and unsuspected of killing homeless people and prostitutes? Just do this, and you can literally get away with anything?

Harron, Turner, and Bale all lean into this notion, which is where so much of the humor in American Psycho comes from, and so much of the unsettling feeling you experience while watching it. It’s not the banality of his evil, it’s that emptiness of everything around it. This is why Bateman comes off less like the product of a bad environment and more like just part of the go-go ’80s landscape. He’s the GQ spread as cutthroat-capitalist success story, emphasis on “cutthroat.” It goes without saying that the world he came from, specifically that toxic vision of a New York full of Page Six sordidness and by-any-means-necessary wealth accumulation, still haunts us now, though comparing Patrick Bateman to a certain president is a little unfair: Bateman at least tries to pretend he has empathy and human emotions. But history has been extraordinarily kind to Harron’s movie. It doesn’t even matter that the most famous line from Ellis’s book — “This is not an exit” — is never uttered. The film leaves us with another nihilistic mantra: “This confession has meant nothing.” He could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and gut someone, and he’d never lose a single seat at the Harvard Club.