American Psycho, 2000
“Additional blog post”
I’ve always wondered what Mary Harron saw in the original slasher novel, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. His publishers ditched him and revoked the $300k advance just months before the scheduled release, female employees refuse to work on the book and his illustrator basically told him to design his own damn cover. (The book heavily indulges in the first-person detail of Wall St yuppie/serial killer, Patrick Bateman’s, gruesome homicidal violence against women, for those wondering.) Despite the lack of encouragement, he went and released it anyway in 1991.
‘It bombed’ would be a severe understatement.
Feminist movements clashed with anti-corporate-censorship groups, politicians were involved, death threats were received, and I can only assume Ellis was sitting back somewhere wondering how his disturbing little book could cause such chaos. He actually described the response as confusing, “I think it’s basically a joke“. I’d also be confident in guessing that he couldn’t imagine the lasting effects his work would have on the literary world, let alone the cinematic one.
Considering the “Vile… Misogynistic… Foul” nature of the book, I can’t imagine that anyone, for that matter, would have anticipated a film adaptation, especially from a female production team. And yet, enter Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner. These two women were certainly part of the minority group who read American Psycho for what it was; a sardonic social commentary of 1980s America. Ellis himself explained it quite simply, “the Eighties seemed to me to be a very ugly decade, and this was what I came away with. It’s an ugly book.”
In a behind-the-scenes interview with Harron, she certainly seems to have understood that message. “When I read the book, I felt that it had been misjudged and at the heart of it was a really great satire on America during that time, and that making a movie would allow me to really bring that out, rescue it from it’s bad reputation.” So instead of dwelling on the grotesque detail of violence in the book, she focuses on Ellis’ true intention to create this social satire. Just as the original had, she borrows from other genres, comedy and horror, to converse about the politics of the time – the ever-lasting war on drugs, gang violence, street violence, pro-capitalism etc. It focuses on a very specific group of people during a very specific time in New York.
New York’s retail sector boomed in the ’80s with the industry catering to the upcoming ‘me’ generation, technology providing more and more ways to nurture their self-importance; satellite phones and compact disks are some of the most obviously recurring examples in the film. The Wall Street type had always been rich, but they’d never had so many ways to exhibit their wealth. The real life Bateman and the funky bunch were reinventing what rich looked like, as comical as the story makes it seem, these were not fictional lifestyles. With the Reaganomics driving the importance of wealth and stature, it was falling on the ears of the old white money offspring – it’s easy to forget that Patrick is only 27. It was no longer about stocks or land, but having the best things and being seen with the best people with the best things.
The substance use in this film almost goes unnoticed because it’s just so typical of these kinds of characters and films set in the ’80s – probably the most iconic being Pulp Fiction or Scarface. Although drugs were one of the biggest political issues in America at the time, they’re also blatantly used in the film to the same materialistic purpose as the Valentino suits. When Bateman and Bryce go into the crowded bathroom at the nightclub to snort cocaine, they discover that it’s not actually cocaine but sweetener – and yet they snort it anyway. It’s not about the high, it’s about keeping up appearances and completing the actions that allow you to belong in this elitist club. The cocaine use also kind of ties in with the violence. Violent street crime spikes in America during the 1980s but it especially spiked in New York – clearly correlating the crack epidemic.
The point in the film in which the gallows comedy kind of drops for a moment is during the scene when Bateman kills the homeless man. The allegory for the drug and gang-related violence rings through his actions rather clearly for the first time. It’s not premeditated as the others are, he decides to do it as he walks past, taunts him, he makes a real show of convincing himself (and his listeners) that he is different from this man because of his money. “Do you know how bad you smell, Al? … I don’t have anything in common with you. Do you know how much of a fucking loser you are?”
With his prior murders, there’s some kind of understanding from the audience because at least he justifies himself. Yeah okay, well that Paul Allen guy was a bit of a douchebag. But when he kills Al, it’s for no other reason than, as Patrick says, he has nothing in common with him. It assimilates the senselessness of the street violence of the ’80s and the countless meaningless murders that happened because of drugs or gang colours.
I think it’s also important to note that Al is one of the only people of colour in the film – other than a few security guards or cleaners who are also murdered by Patrick. Although it’s addressed more indirectly, the lack of cultural diversity ties into the theme of white power on Wall St. Every single name we hear, either of a character or in conversation is Anglo – Baxter, Fisher, Allen, Bryce. Patrick even specifically asks for his prostitutes to be blonde. Although civil rights issues would have of course been relevant at the time, I think these subtle discriminatory actions in casting choices are again to underline how exclusive and elite Patrick’s P&P club is.
Although Ellis’s original story was condemned by basically the entire country, Harron’s adaptation has been coined a “horror comedy classic.” Perhaps the millenials aren’t as easily offended by the violence, or perhaps the undertones of political commentary just needed to be translated a little more clearly. Regardless, congrats to Harron on one of the rarest feats in cinema; making a film better than the book. You go, girl.