I Have to Return Some Videotapes

Seeing the Christian Bale photo in the Empire spread (See, "Empire Strikes Back," supra) made me desperate to watch American Psycho.  Because I obviously own the uncut DVD, I did.  In my tradition of blogging about decade-old movies (See, "I Pierced the Toast", supra), I thought I'd gush about American Psycho, too.

(Note: I'm not going to summarize the movie in full on the blog.  I'm just going to assume that all of my readers have a sick, twisted, wonderful sense of humor and have watched it forty bazillion times like I have.  If you'd like a full plot synopsis with spoilers obviously click here.  But better yet, put it on your Netflix.)

American Psycho is one of those rare movies that's better than the book it's based on.  Bret Easton Ellis' 1991 book is too long, too graphic, and too rambling; it's a stream-of-consciousness, first-person narrative of a psychopath, Patrick Bateman, who sadistically tortures and kills women.  The movie, however, is a sharp, haunting, dark comedy that's as brutal in its social commentary as it is in its murders.  Or, as one reviewer put it
"Against the odds, Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner have succeeded in extracting a viable narrative screenplay from this plotless blank. Almost everything in their film comes from the book, but they have sensibly junked a huge amount...What's left is a brittle and stylised satire of Me-generation values..."
The movie's genius is rooted in its streamlined screenplay which, interestingly, was adapted by two women.  As a girl who loves gory movies, I adore seeing a perfect intersection of satire and violence like American Psycho come out of women's hands.  That Harron and Turner successfully, in the words of Roger Ebert, "transformed a novel about blood lust into a movie about men's vanity" may owe partly to their female perspective.

Harron and Turner's Bateman is less menacing than the book's Bateman.  He's incredibly insecure and frantic, which makes him pitiable and mockable.  But his desperation also makes him extremely scary: Bateman is so sensitive and irrational you never know what (like raised lettering on a business card) is going to set him off.  Harron and Turner's script makes Bateman seem crazy because his priorities are so bizarrely distorted, not just because he kills people.  And that's hard to do.

Much of Psycho's humor also comes from its direction.  Harron (who both wrote and directed) turns terrifying moments from the book into comic (or at least absurd) scenes in the movie.  For example, Harron reported in an interview that she instructed Bateman's prostitutes to be bored, not "in a Penthouse fantasy." Of course, this resulted in the deeply funny sex scene where Bateman obsessively admires his own reflection, much to the eye-rolling of his partners.

Harron also asked Willem Dafoe (who, in a very Boondock Saints move, plays a detective) to perform three distinct takes of every scene: one where he knew Bateman killed Paul Allen, one where he wasn't sure if Bateman killed Paul Allen, and one where he believed Bateman didn't kill Paul Allen.  Harron edited the takes together to give a Dafoe's character an uneven quality, and leave viewers unsure if Dafoe had figured Bateman out.  It worked. 

So what would American Psycho have looked like if it had been directed by someone else?  Some reviewers said Kubrick could've directed it, some said Oliver Stone, but I think it would've made a better Tarantino vehicle.  Kubrick takes his work too seriously, Stone would've made it needlessly cold and trippy and distanced. 

But Tarantino (for all his ego) is the master of seamlessly integrating dark humor, social commentary, and excessive, gory violence.  Paul Allen's murder is as horribly funny as "I shot Marvin in the face!," and as memorably set to music as the Stealers Wheel scene in Reservoir Dogs.  Bateman's tirades about Huey Lewis and Whitney Houston are like pages torn out of Mr. Brown's "Madonna" rant in Dogs.  And, at the climax, isn't Bateman just Bruce Willis if he'd chosen the chainsaw instead of the machete?

Let me show you what I mean.  Here's (what's probably) the most memorable scene in the movie.   Interestingly, it's the only scene Bret Easton Ellis hated.  (Warning: not for the blood-and-violence-averse.) 

The second most memorable scene in the movie.  Trivia: did anyone notice all the cards spell "Acquisitions" wrong?

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steve B
June 15, 2010 at 6:14 PM delete

do you like Phil Collins?


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