20 Years of “American Psycho” in Trump’s America - The Film Adaptation Came Out April 14, 2000 | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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20 Years of “American Psycho” in Trump’s America

The Film Adaptation Came Out April 14, 2000

Apr 10, 2020 By Steve King Web Exclusive
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Mary Harron’s 2000 adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho was released 20 years ago this month. It’s also my favorite movie of all time. I still remember the feeling I had walking out of seeing it for the first time in the theater. It’s scary, moody, funny, and gets the point across without going into all of Ellis’ more gruesome details. The ultraviolence in the film is mostly presented as subtext. 

From the opening credits toying with a balance of horror and comedy, the question hovering over the film is whether it’s a satire or horror. It’s both. The lighting is excellent. It’s gorgeous with a lot of wide shots, the score (by Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale) is great, and the soundtrack is ’80s heaven, along with a couple newer Cure and Bowie songs. It’s dreamlike, Kubrickian, Hitchcockian, and never loses its sense of humor even when the protagonist is describing what it’s like to eat human brains. 

I don’t love it for its misogyny, but because it’s a critique of misogyny and male behavior. It mocks white male rage. And who wants a direct adaptation of the book? The book is horrific enough. Yes, it’s horror, social commentary, and satire. It’s High Horror. Christian Bale’s genius makes Patrick Batemen as sympathetic as he can be, in that he’s clueless and his own worst abuser. President Reagan slogans pepper the story, and finally, at the end, the man himself shows up on a bar TV addressing the nation about the Iran-Contra Scandal. It’s perfect. 

The thing that always struck me hardest about the film was that these were the types of men running the 1980s world we were still living in 2000. These stoic masters of the universe, under the facade, were insane raving maniacs and messy bitches who were obsessed with their image, and who lived for drama, and the personal destruction of others. Now, 20 years later, that meditation on toxic masculinity and Reagan’s greedy America has taken on a more important and terrible meaning.     

President Trump’s name is mentioned with reverence multiple times by the sleazebags who populate the story. He’s more than some transdimensional goblin whose name occasionally shows up in late 20th century pop culture; he is the future that American Psycho was warning us about. In a world where people don’t know their supposed “friends” names or who each other are, or care to remember when they last had dinner together, a monster can commit unspeakable crimes and never be noticed. In that America, you can get away with murder.    

Like Trump, the best lens with which to examine Patrick Bateman is through the eyes of his potential victims. Director/writer Mary Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner don’t view Bateman as he views himself. He thinks he is cool and collected, but they know what a disaster of a person he really is. Turner talks about that a little in the DVD commentary, when she describes men who identified with Bateman, and she says plainly, “He’s not very cool.” Bateman’s appeal, like Trump’s, is fine as long as you don’t scratch below the surface. Like Trump, there is no one thing you can point to in Bateman’s childhood that would explain why he acts the way he does. In fact, his evil seems inherent. He just Is. Theirs is an evil that requires no explanation. No reason would be sufficient. The only one that comes close is that they were both born into money, and that by being close to unearned privilege has rotted their personalities.

The parallels continue. Though the story is told in first person, it’s not reflective. Bateman is empty inside, and for all his decadence and attempts to stand out, he’s condemned to be his peers’ loser friend. He is more funny than scary, but, like Trump, you’re afraid of what he might do. He’s always panicking and taking things very personally when others don’t care. He constantly needs to feed his inferiority complex by exuding superiority. He went to Harvard Business School but he doesn’t seem to be very smart. He has a high-power job, given to him by his father, but he never really seems to work. His occupation is just another form of his sick performance art of acting like a normal person. His violent need for attention is reflected in his many cries for help. 

Bateman wants to be recognized, and he desperately wants to be caught, because it would bring him more personal validation. He’s proud to have cold blood. But the dirty little secret at the heart of the film is that no one cares about you, and in that world, monsters can go about their lives and never face justice. Because of Bateman’s deteriorating perception of reality, the audience can never know the extent of his crimes. His altered reality makes him at once the most reliable narrator and also the most deluded. He’s weak, shallow, disgusting, corrupt, and in a permanent state of worsening panic and anxiety.

His behavior worsens. He lives in a dream-like, hallucinatory world. He goes on bizarre rants. He’s a klutz and loser and his story ends essentially where it began, with no new knowledge gleaned from any of his horrific activities. His confessions mean nothing. His punishment is not to be caught, but not to be recognized. Bateman’s story, like the problems unleashed on the world by the president, remain unresolved. They will continue. This is not an exit.

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