In American Psycho, set in Manhattan in the early 1980's, Patrick Bateman is one of an indistinct number of interchangable men. In their late twenties, impeccably styled and groomed, they all have the same job title, eat at the same restaurants, wear the same suits, go to the same hairstylists, do the same exercises at the same gyms, make the same jokes, and listen to the same music. The uniformity is so extreme that the characters often can't tell each other apart -- frequently Bateman is called by the wrong name, and in several instances he gets into conversations with his peers in which another person will insult Patrick Bateman as if Bateman himself weren't standing right there...because the speaker doesn't know who's who.
Within that rigid structure of conformity, they are fanatically competitive. Every little detail must be perfect: the perfect girlfriend, the perfect body, the perfect apartment. The movie opens with a fifteen-minute discussion of Bateman's morning ritual: his soap, his shampoo, his face moisturizer. Which vice president has the highest quality black-print-on-white-background business card becomes, literally, a matter of life or death.
This society's homogenity leads to an expectation of sameness among its members. Those in this culture do not -expect- to see anything unusual, so they do not -- a character can say to another, "I'm into murders and executions," and what the other character chooses to hear is, "I'm into mergers and acquisitions." A man can confess to murder, or tell another person that he's about to kill her, and it is not believed -- it is rationalized, made into what is expected.
There is no way out of this culture. American Psycho makes this clear. Bateman can commit murder after horrific murder. A victim can run screaming and bloody down a hallway, pounding on doors. A detective can investigate, bodies can be found, confessions can be made. But it is brushed over, blended into that aggressive sameness and forgotten. The last shot of the movie is Bateman's face, and in the background a door that bears a sign: THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.
Much has been made over American Psycho. When Bret Easton Ellis's book was originally published in 1991, a tremendous outcry against it came up. It was deemed violent, repellant -- it was even referred to as "a manual of how to torture and kill women in the most graphic and disgusting manner possible" (Chris Wood). Feminists in particular reacted againt the book as degrading women, using them as simply bodies to fuck and mutilate.
They missed the point.
Director Mary Harron, a feminist filmmaker who also directed 'I Shot Andy Warhol', and her co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner, "the poster girl of lesbian cinema", took Ellis's intention and used the movie to skewer the ludicriously-competitve 1980's Wall Street culture. In a society of men so interchangable that one of them could butcher a dozen people and not be noticed, a society in which every detail is a contest that means life or death, it is not women being degraded. It's a culture that's being satirized, the uniformity of those in it, and the insane degree of competition between men that breeds such extremes.
And as the story draws to a close, it brings the entire concept of perception into question.
Yes, American Psycho is gory. Yes, it is violent. Yes, it is deeply disturbing. But it is also sickly funny, startling, and thought-provoking. Ultimately, it is definitely not like anything else out there. It may not be for everyone, but it's absolutely worth seeing.
American Psycho (the book)
American Psycho (in theatres)