All fears to the contrary, "American Psycho" does not mark the end of movies as we've come to know them.
Directed and co-written with a sure and even-tempered hand by Mary Harron, "American Psycho" is a decidedly black farce that gets its point across just fine without dwelling on the gruesome killings and apparent anti-female sentiment that made Bret Easton Ellis' source novel such a pariah.
Not that its central character, Wall Street hotshot Patrick Bateman, is the kind of guy you'd want to take home to mother (unless, perhaps, you're Norman Bates). Psychotic and delusional in the extreme, with a narcissistic streak a mile wide and an unfortunate way with a chain saw, Bateman is a monster for the ages -- by his own admission, he's only almost human, and that may be giving him too much credit.
But Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner keep "American Psycho" from becoming a "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in a three-piece suit by dwelling not on Bateman's murderous bent, but instead on the me-at-all-costs culture that makes him plausible. The movie may not offer much in the way of insight -- yes, we know the '80s were the textbook definition of morally hollow -- but it packages its insights in a way that no one is likely to forget.
As a story, "American Psycho" seems pretty simple. Patrick Bateman likes to kill people. Not out of sexual rage, not because he hears voices, not because he's on some perverted moral crusade. He just likes to kill people, finds it all rather exciting. Plus, he finds it so much easier to kill people than interact with them. But as his murders become more calculated -- he kills one co-worker in a white-carpeted apartment, calmly taking time to cover everything in plastic beforehand -- he seems to take less pleasure in them. He even lets what passes for conscience talk him out of killing one woman.
This won't do. Especially since the police, in the form of nosy detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe), seem to be getting wise to his act. What's a psycho to do?
But then, is Bateman the murderous psycho he seems? Or does he just have a vivid imagination -- fed by a corporate culture where murder seems like a logical extension of the way business is run?
"American Psycho" has great fun manipulating reality; in its opening scene, blood that appears to be dripping on the screen turns out to be dessert preparation involving red berry sauce. That's not the last time Harron and Turner's screenplay has viewers doing a double-take.
And, as gruesome as Bateman's murders and sexual games may be, perhaps the film's most memorable scene involves a simple business card. In Bateman's world, the person to be envied isn't the richest, or most successful, or the one with the prettiest trophy wife. It's the guy with the best-textured, most delicately off-white, most exquisitely printed business card. To the naked eye, the cards look pretty much the same, but Bateman and his friends take it all deadly seriously. As satire, the scene is withering. It's also hilarious.
Welsh-born Christian Bale, who made his film debut as the boy hero of Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," is all reptilian menace as Bateman. There's nothing endearing about him -- this is no misunderstood victim of society -- but there are more than a few elements of the surreal. It's an open question whether his Bateman is a murderous psycho or just a deluded psychotic, but in neither case do you want to be around this guy. Bales' is a sly, disturbing performance that makes Norman Bates seem the lesser of two evils.
As a book, "American Psycho" was accused of being misogynistic, but on screen, the female characters are the only ones emotionally involving. That's especially true of Chloe Sevigny as Bateman's secretary, Jean, who insists on finding humanity in her boss, and Cara Seymour as Christie, a prostitute who gets drawn into Bateman's potentially deadly games.
"American Psycho" is never going to be mistaken for the feel-good movie of the year. But by distilling the novel to its satirical essence, Harron turns it into a withering condemnation of a culture where greed is a virtue, a culture that you don't have to feel guilty for laughing at.
Starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe and Chloe Sevigny
Directed by Mary Harron
Released by Lions Gate Films
Running time 100 minutes
Rated R (strong violence, sexuality, drug use and language)
Sun score: ***