As the sugary sounds of Phil Collins' "Sussudio" blare in the background, a man has rough, sweaty sex with not one, but two women. It's a common male fantasy brought to life, but the man is less interested in the sex act than himself, his gaze fixed on himself in the mirror as he flexes his muscles while doing the dirty deed. Now, can anyone imagine Leonardo DiCaprio in this role?
Neither can I, especially not after seeing Christian Bale so effortlessly pull off this scene as the title character in American Psycho, a part that at one point been offered to--and very nearly been accepted by--the golden boy of Titanic. This adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' controversial novel of sex and serial murder in the image-obsessed '80s would be absolutely unthinkable without Bale, who is a stunning revelation as the social status-minded sociopath. It is also difficult to imagine the film being as wickedly satirical--while genuinely disturbing--as it is had it not been made by director/co-scripter Mary Harron.
The notorious reputation of American Psycho the novel comes from its extremely graphic depictions of violence, a point with which Harron has cheeky fun from frame one. As the credits unspool on a white background, drops of a red liquid fall across the screen, followed by the image of a knife slicing in the air. But then it's revealed that the knife is cutting meat (not of the human variety), which is then placed on top of a plate sprinkled with the previously seen red sauce, making one of those insanely artistic dishes served at swank gourmet dining establishments.
The film's tone is further set by the formal introduction to the Psycho of the title, Wall Street hotshot Patrick Bateman (Bale). Patrick narrates his typical morning routine, which is not unlike most people's--get up, exercise, shower. The difference is how his attention to hygiene borders on obsessive narcissism, going through a veritable laundry list of products in the shower and even more than that for a post-shower facial treatment. It's overkill by most people's standards, but Patrick's unironic, matter-of-fact narration makes it clear that it couldn't be a more natural part of taking care of himself. In fact, the names of the products Patrick uses is the most specific information given about him; no clear background is ever established--but then perhaps all is said in one revealing comment in this opening voiceover: "There is no real me."
Like Patrick's waking rituals, Bale's vocal performance seems a bit much, at least at the beginning. The British actor adopts not just an American accent for this role, but also the perfectly enunciated and overwrought cadences of a TV announcer. But as the film goes on, his speech proves to be in perfect alignment with the film as a whole. This is not necessarily because American Psycho grows more outrageous--and, it could be easily said, over the top--as it progresses (and it does), but because it is a double-edged reflection of the film's deeper concerns about identity and conformity. On one hand, to make oneself sound more bombastically important is an attempt to stand out from the crowd in the "Me" decade; on another, in sounding so self-important, Patrick actually makes himself that much more like his preppy peers, in essence defeating the whole purpose.
There is one characteristic of Patrick Bateman that distinguishes him from the rest of his power suit-sporting kind, and that's his pesky habit of slicing and dicing people. Unlike Ellis, whose novel lingered on every last grisly detail, Harron doesn't show more than she has to; she leaves most of the action to the imagination, opting for shots of blood splattering on Patrick instead of those of blades tearing into flesh. The technique serves its purpose; it makes the killings more disturbing while not being so harsh as to steal the focus away from real point, which is satire.
The surface satire in the
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