American Psycho (2000, Directed by Mary Harron)

Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) was one of the most controversial novels of the early 1990s, mostly because of the graphic (but gleeful) violence committed by its deranged but dapper protagonist, Patrick Bateman. At the same time, the novel gradually came to be recognized as an extremely insightful satire of the ruthless and soulless materialism of American society in the Reagan era of the 1980s. Still, though, the novel was long regarded as unfilmable, partly because of the nature of this violence and partly because, ironically, American Psycho is actually a highly literary novel that depends for its effect on a number of sophisticated literary strategies in its presentation of this violence. Indeed, a filmmaker as prominent as Oliver Stone considered making the film (with Leonardo DiCaprio preliminarily cast as Bateman), but then decided it just couldn’t be done. The announcement that the novel was being adapted to film by Mary Harron, a young Canadian feminist filmmaker with only one feature film to her credit (the very interesting 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol), was thus greeted with considerable skepticism. As it turns out, though, the film, released to theaters in April 2000 and starring Christian Bale as Bateman, met with a mostly positive critical response and has only gained in reputation over time, becoming a cult hit (and even becoming a leading source of material for Internet memes).

Reviewing Ellis’s novel for the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley pronounced the book to be “a contemptible piece of pornography, the literary equivalent of a snuff flick. Its concluding 150 pages can only be described as repulsive, a bloodbath serving no purpose save that of morbidity, titillation and sensation; American Psycho is a loathsome book.” The film, however, prompted a much different critical reception, as when the popular critic Roger Ebert praised Harron for having “transformed a novel about blood lust into a movie about men’s vanity,” noting, in particular, the “heroic” willingness of Bale (in his pre-Batman days[1]) to allow his character “to leap joyfully into despicability” in the interest of a commentary on the vanity and narcissism of a certain type of male. Peter Bradshaw, reviewing the film for The Guardian, also particularly praised Bateman’s performance, while noting that the film was also preferable to the novel because of its comic style: “In American Psycho, director Mary Harron has transformed Bret Easton Ellis’s showy, explicitly violent novel into a stylish, disquieting, unexpectedly witty piece of cinema. And in doing so, has given us the first big star of the new decade: Christian Bale, an actor who gives a smart and sensuously physical performance.” By 2020, though, critical discussions of the film version of American Psycho had shifted more to an emphasis on its social and political satire, giving the film a somewhat weightier stature as a monument of 1980s American culture.

American Psycho as Social and Political Satire

Thus, looking back on the film twenty years after its release, Scott Tobias (also in The Guardian) notes that Bateman seems to represent “certain 1980s themes: the greed and rapaciousness of Wall Street, the emptiness of consumer culture, and a Reagan era where old-fashioned values covered the whole Darwinian bloodbath in the sharp, piney scent of Polo cologne.” Importantly, though, Tobias argues that Bateman doesn’t merely represent these trends of the 1980s but is the literal embodiment of them. To him, Bateman is the answer to questions such as “What if the era manifested itself as a person? How would he feel? How would he behave?”

American Psycho is a striking dramatization of the moral emptiness of American culture in the 1980s, with a special emphasis on Wall Street banking that tilts both the film and the novel into narratives of the birth of neoliberal capitalism, a phenomenon that has only become more powerful since the 1980s, giving American Psycho a great deal of contemporary relevance in the 2020s. In addition, in terms of social and political satire, anyone rereading the novel American Psycho in the 2020s is likely to be struck by the prominent role played by Donald Trump, who is mentioned no less than thirty times in the novel (including references to Trump Tower and to Ivana Trump), though he is barely mentioned in the film. What is even more important, though, is the envious nature of these mentions by Bateman as the narrator. Trump is probably the one person that the greedy, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, and narcissistic Bateman admires most, the person he looks to as his principal role model. The prominence of Trump in the novel, in fact, might come as a surprise to those who think of American Psycho as a satire of the Reagan era. Yet Reagan is only mentioned four times in the novel, and plays a much less important symbolic role there than does Trump, though Reagan is more important in the film than is Trump[2]. However, the novel reminds us that Trump himself was one of the most high-profile products of the Reagan era; at the time, in fact, he was considered to be a virtual embodiment of the glitzy materialism that characterized the decade. After all, the Trump Organization was first registered as a corporation in 1981, the same year that Reagan became president, marking what some would see as the birth of neoliberalism[3].

That neoliberalism is still expanding and solidifying its power in the 2020s makes American Psycho relevant to our own decade, as well as to the 1980s. As Matt Graham notes, the novel, in particular, remains relevant to the era of President Trump, as well as to the era of Trump the brash young capitalist of the 1980s. It also, according to Graham, suggests that the postmodern culture of the 1980s is still alive and well, having led directly to the Trumpian post-truth culture of the 2020s. As Graham notes, “Features more commonly associated with postmodern fiction—unreliable narration, extremity, and the inescapable dominance of consumer capitalism—reappear in the bizarre behavior of Trump, reinforced by the advent of post-truth culture” (223). Ellis himself has commented directly on such matters in White, his 2019 collection of essays on contemporary American politics, where he sees the era of the Trump presidency as a direct extension of both postmodernism and the era of the Reagan presidency. Ellis grants that Patrick Bateman is the “logical outcome” of Reagan-era excess, but argues that the same thing might be said for Trump (72).

That Trump is very much a product of the Reaganite 1980s is well captured in the documentary series Empires of New York, which aired on the CNBC cable network in November and December of 2020. This series begins by detailing the embattled condition of New York City in the 1970s and early 1980s but notes that the city emerged into a new era of capitalist glitter in the course of the 1980s. Meanwhile, the series focuses on five New Yorkers it sees as central to this remarkable (if highly problematic) comeback. Trump himself is front and center among these individuals, as is his fellow hotel developer Leona Helmsley. Another focus of the series is future Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, prominent in the 1980s as an ambitious young U.S. attorney who set his sights on battling organized crime but actual did very little to combat that crime. Conversely, a fourth key figure in this series is famed mob leader John Gotti. Finally, also emblematic of New York in the 1980s was the intrepid investor Ivan Boesky, a key inspiration for the character ofGordon Gekko in Stone’s Wall Street (1987), who would ultimately become the best-known pop cultural representative of the cutthroat capitalism of the Reagan years.

All of these figures provide important insights into the nature of the culture of American capitalism in the 1980s, the culture that is the home territory of Patrick Bateman. Meanwhile, the characterization of Bateman not only provides a warning of the ruthlessness and greed that drove American capitalism in the 1980s but also connects Wall Street culture to other social and political problems of the decade, including a rise in phenomena such as racism and misogyny, which can be seen as direct responses to the emancipatory political movements of the 1960s, just as Reagan himself was often presented as a kind of throwback who could help to undo the leftward turn in American society as a result of these movements.

One of the most discussed aspects of American Psycho is its treatment of gender and particularly of the attitude of Bateman toward women. The first few seconds of the opening credits display drops of blood falling, each drop accompanied by a dramatic pluck of violin strings, while a tense hum sounds in background. This opening, especially given the title of the film, irresistibly recalls the soundscape and the famously intricate opening credits of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a film that hovers in the background throughout American Psycho, though it will not be overly mentioned at any point[4]. In particular, the shocking crimes portrayed in Hitchcock’s film are largely motivated by gender, committed by a young man whose problematic relationship with his own mother has driven him insane in a way that causes him to commit brutal murders of attractive young women. Based on a novel inspired by the real-world case of 1950s serial killer Ed Gein, Psycho makes the psycho-sexual motivation behind its murders quite clear.

Meanwhile, this quick evocation doesn’t just provide a nod to Psycho as an important predecessor to American Psycho: it also tips us off that this is going to be a cleverly constructed film in which we should pay attention to small details. In addition, by the time we get to the credit “A Mary Harron Film,” the drops of blood continue to fall and splatter, but the music morphs into a quicker and lighter, almost comic tempo, providing a signal of the tone that will be adopted throughout the film. As the sequence continues past the film’s own title (in an elegant font that might have been very much at home on those fancy business cards for which the film is so famous), the drops turn into what appears to be a constant stream of blood, now tracing a sinuous pattern of red on the screen. As Bale’s name appears, a gleaming chef’s knife (Hoffritz Platinum Series[5]) crosses the screen, being raised in what seems to be an ominous way. But then the knife is shown coming back down—to chop into a hunk of meat. Then, after Willem Dafoe’s credit, the drops of falling blood are replaced by falling raspberries, that land about that now well-garnished meat, which is itself lying on that sinuous pattern of red, which turns out to be a sauce. That meat, clearly a gourmet dish, in then served, along with other elegant gourmet dishes, to the patrons of a fancy restaurant, establishing a connection between fine food and bloody murder that in many ways sums up the texture of Bateman’s life.

The patrons being served at this restaurant include Bateman and his fellow Wall Street investment banker, Timothy Bryce (Justin Theroux), who complains that they are eating at a “chick’s restaurant” and wonders why they aren’t eating at “Dorsia,” a fictional New York restaurant at which only the most connected individuals can get reservations (and at which Bateman consistently fails to get a reservation). This single comment quickly establishes the pretentiousness of Bateman and the people in his circle, as well as the misogyny of the men. Another banker at the table, Craig McDermott (Josh Lucas), waggishly explains that they couldn’t get into Dorsia because “Bateman refused to give the maître d’ head.” This comment illustrates the kind of humor that prevails in this group, suggesting a thinly veiled homophobia, as well as the basic hostility that underlies all of their interactions with one another. Members of this group regard each other, not as friends, but as rivals, indicating the highly competitive ethos that is the basic texture of their world.

Bateman responds to McDermott’s remark with a fake laugh that indicates his own hostility. McDermott then points to another of their colleagues that he spots across the restaurant, asking if that person is “Reed Robinson.” Bryce, though, scoffs and declares that the person indicated is obviously Paul Allen, a man who (played by Jared Leto) is one of Bateman’s most hated rivals, though Bateman himself is sometimes mistaken for Allen (among others) in the film[6]. Bateman, though, declares that the indicated man is not Paul Allen and that Allen is on the other side of the room. Indeed, virtually all of the members of Bateman’s circle seem to have trouble recognizing each other or distinguishing any of themselves from any of the others. After all, Bateman’s interactions with his professional colleagues make it perfectly clear that all of them look alike, dress alike, and think alike. This motif, prominent in both the novel and the film, makes the very crucial point that Bateman is not a uniquely disturbed individual but is, in fact, representative of the attitudes and ideas of a whole segment of American society. He is not merely an aberrant psycho, but an American psycho, a sort of allegorical figure who embodies important energies present in American society in the 1980s. Indeed, as Mattius Rischard argues, to see Bateman simply as a sick individual would not only miss the point of American Psycho but also obscure the historical realities that the film and novel comment on: “Critical dismissal of the novel or film as misogynist obscenity is complicit with the more general cultural work of minimizing systemic inequalities caused by the social violence required in expanding the finance industry and creating yuppie masculinity” (457)

These energies are directly related to the unrestrained form of capitalism that characterized the 1980s, with the full support of the Reagan administration in Washington, which did everything in its power to cripple the ability of the federal government to regulate capitalism and limit its abuses. We see this emphasis on money at the end of that first scene, when all four of the diners at Bateman’s table toss in their identical American Express platinum cards to pay their portions of the $570 bill (quite a sum in the 1980s) for the meals they just consumed. Such cards were a key sign of status in the 1980s, but they do not allow any of these men to distinguish themselves here—such a card is simply a minimum requirement for anyone in their milieu.

Bateman and his associates (who are really his alter egos, as they are so interchangeable) compete more overtly in the well-known scene in which they compare business cards as each attempts to demonstrate that his own particular card is more chic and stylish than any of the others. It is very clear that the men have a great deal of investment in these cards as extensions of their own identities. Indeed, it is quite clear that the cards essentially serve as surrogate penises and that this ritual scene of comparing business cards plays essentially the same role for them as the ritual performances in which male animals of various species display themselves in an attempt to establish their dominance, especially for mating purposes. It’s a very comic scene in which the vanity and pretentiousness of the men are on full display, but it becomes especially comical due to the way Bateman proudly whips out his card, confident of its superiority, and is then shocked to realize that the contest has apparently been won by someone else (Paul Allen in the film and both Price and a minor character named Montgomery in the novel).

In reality, of course, there is little to distinguish any of the cards from the others, but Bateman is nevertheless so humiliated by this experience that he immediately leaves the office and stalks into an alley, where he abuses a (black) homeless man and knifes him to death, then stomps the man’s dog to death as well. This murder is the first that we see in the film, and it is especially shocking, though it is not at all clear whether it actually happens or whether it is simply Bateman’s fantasy in response to his perceived loss in the business-card battle. In the novel, he simply goes out to a restaurant with the other men, continuing their duel of egos over lunch, though the murder of the homeless man is eventually related nearly a hundred pages later, at which point he calls the man a “nigger,” making quite overt the level of his racism. This offensive word does not appear in the film.

One of the most consistent characteristics displayed by Bateman and his colleagues is their attitude toward women, whom they seem to regard more as objects to be acquired for their own collection than as human beings. Women, to the men in American Psycho, are merely bodies meant to be enjoyed by men[7]. Bateman, of course, takes this attitude to a whole new level by treating women as objects upon which to visit abject violence. A little more than a third of the way through the film, Bateman (pretending to be Paul Allen) entertains two prostitutes in his apartment (one a street hooker and one a high-priced escort, just for variety). He seems hostile to them throughout, and, when the three start to have sex (with Bateman videotaping the whole proceeding), he appears to be much more interested in his own body than in theirs, preening and posing for the camera, using the women merely as props. Then, as the three lie sleeping in bed together afterward, Bateman gets up to grab some implements of torture. The novel gives us much more graphic details about the horrific things he does to women, but the film here demurely skips to the part where the women leave, battered, bloody, and somewhat stunned, though well paid.

Late in the film, Bateman (still pretending to be Allen) again entertains two women—including the street hooker, Christie (Cara Seymour), from that first threesome. This time, though, he hosts them in Allen’s apartment, delivering his review of the music of Whitney Houston as the sexual festivities begin. Christie (remembering her first session with Bateman) attempts to escape as the mayhem begins, while Bateman, maniacally waving a chain saw, pursues her. Still, she escapes the apartment and heads down the stairs. Bateman, though, spots her several floors down and drops the chain saw on her, impaling and killing her in a manner that might be inspired by his film viewing but that also seems virtually impossible in reality[8].

The film immediately cuts here to Bateman, McDermott, and David Van Patten (Bill Sage) sitting around and making outrageously sexist comments about women. For his part, Bateman (in dialog borrowed directly from the novel) cites no less an authority than the serial killer Gein, who noted (according to Bateman), that “When I see a pretty girl walking down the street … one part of me wants to take her out and talk to her, be real nice and sweet and treat her right.” The other part of him, though, simply wonders “what her head would look like on a stick.” Bateman is very amused with himself, though his pals are a bit nonplussed.

This little confab is then broken up when Luis Carruthers (Matt Rose) stops by to show off his new business card, which is so fancy that Bateman immediately decides to murder him. He follows Carruthers into the men’s room and puts his hands around the man’s throat in order to choke him. Carruthers, though, misunderstands the move and thinks Bateman is coming on to him. He kisses Bateman on the wrist and says he has wanted “this” for years, at which Bateman flees the men’s room in disgust and horror, babbling that he needs to go return some videotapes. The homophobia in his reaction is quite clear, though that aspect of Bateman’s character is not emphasized as much in the film as it is in the novel, which features a scene in which he relates his gleefully brutal murder of an “old queer” and the man’s dog.

Two of Bateman’s relationships with women stand apart from the rest. One is with his fiancée, Evelyn Williams (Reese Witherspoon), who spends much of the film attempting to plan their wedding, while Bateman spends his time trying to avoid the subject, claiming that he is too busy with work, though he actually seems to devote very little of his time to work, even when he is in his office. He also devotes relatively little time to Evelyn, who seems to serve mostly as a place-holder. She is suitably pretty and suitably rich and has a suitable pedigree to serve as his fiancée. But she also seems as vapid and superficial as Bateman himself. Bateman also doesn’t seem to have much interest in her sexually (he never has sex with her in the entire film), preferring to sleep around with other women instead, including Courtney Rawlinson (Samantha Mathis), her best friend. However, that might be partly because Evelyn’s status as his fiancée seems to preclude him from having his usual violent fantasies where she is concerned. In fact, he seems to have almost no feelings toward her of any kind and doesn’t even seem to resent the fact that he is fairly sure she is having an affair with Bryce.

The other woman Bateman seems to regard slightly differently (in that he neither kills her nor has sex with her) is his young, starry-eyed secretary, Jean (Chloë Sevigny), whose innocence and obvious crush on him don’t seem to draw quite as much violent hostility as do the more jaded women with whom he normally interacts. Granted, there is a moment when he seems about to kill Jean with a nail gun after she finally comes to his apartment. Evelyn, though, calls and leaves a message on Bateman’s answering machine at that very moment. Interrupted, Bateman sends Jean away, telling her that she needs to leave because he can’t control himself and something bad might happen if she stays. He thus seems to have a change of heart (to the extent he has a heart) and genuinely to change his mind about killing her (or fantasizing about killing her).

Patrick Bateman as Unreliable Narrator

Because Bateman has so much trouble separating his own fantasies from reality, viewers of the film can never quite trust that the events we see on the screen are actually happening within the world of the film. Thus, whether Bateman commits any of his apparent murders is perhaps the central uncertainty that underlies any reception of American Psycho. Any discussion of either the novel or the film of American Psycho must come to grips with the fact that the entire novel is narrated by Bateman, while the entire film is narrated from the point of view of Bateman and filtered through his consciousness. But Bateman is the ultimate unreliable narrator: not only can he not be trusted to tell the truth, but it is entirely possible that he himself doesn’t know the truth because he has completely lost touch with reality. We often see Bateman overtly lying to others during the narrative (as in his constant claims about returning videotapes). He also sometimes makes a joke of his own inauthenticity, pretending to believe things he clearly doesn’t. For example, he sometimes adopts what seem to be politically corrects stances, as when he excoriates McDermott in that opening scene for his anti-Semitic remarks. Later, Evelyn’s cousin Vanden (Catherine Black), an artist who most decidedly does not belong to the same social circle as Evelyn and Bateman, complains about the commercialization of Soho, and is then mocked by Bryce, who suggests that she should be more worried about all the Israelis being killed by Sikhs in Sri Lanka. Bateman then quickly picks up this line of faux concern and suggests that there are a lot more important problems than Sri Lanka. He then delivers a virtual checklist of righteous political causes in the 1980s: “We have to end Apartheid, for one, and slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger. We have to provide food and shelter for the homeless and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights, while also promoting equal rights for women. We have to encourage a return to traditional moral values. Most importantly, we have to promote general social concern and less materialism in young people.”

No one takes him seriously, of course (Bryce nearly does a spit take), but the speech is telling: not only does Bateman not actually care about the issues he cites here, but he has nothing but contempt for anyone who does care. This list of fake concerns (it is much longer in the novel) thus encapsulates his political vision, which is no vision at all. Bateman is only concerned with himself, and in that he stands most clearly as the embodiment of the political attitudes (or the lack thereof) of the 1980s. Indeed, the speech Bateman delivers here might have been taken almost straight out of the mouth of Ronald Reagan, the decade’s iconic political figure.

Such speeches are indicative of the way Bateman’s words don’t necessarily carry any true value whatsoever, which makes us wonder how much (if any) of what he tells us can be trusted. This point, of course, is harder to get across in the film, where we can actually see many of the things he merely talks about in the novel, as when we are actually shown some of his violent murders (though the violence is considerably curbed in comparison with the novel). The film does, however, add one sequence that is clearly designed to make us question what we are seeing. Here, Bateman goes on a rampage that includes a running gun battle with a group of New York cops, winning the battle when their cars all explode in a hail of his bullets. The sequence reads like a parody of any number of cinematic action sequences, suggesting that Bateman might just be imagining it based on films he has seen.

Bateman also gives us other reasons to doubt his stability and reliability as an information source. Early in the film version of American Psycho, Bateman returns home to his ultra-clean, modern, luxury apartment and is shown going through some of his extensive ablutions, including a discourse of male skin-care products that gives us a hint at the extent of his narcissism. Then he goes beyond hinting to deliver a key assessment of himself: “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory. And, though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours, and maybe even you can sense our lifestyles are probably comparable, I simply am not there.”

With this speech (a modified version of a longer monologue he delivers near the end of the novel), the film provides some earlier information about how we should regard Bateman’s reliability as a narrator or point-of-view character. A similar speech that also appears relatively late in the novel is edited down and included quite early in the film as Bateman (in the midst of receiving spa treatments delivers a voiceover in which he declares, “I have all of the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but not a single clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust,” then goes on to complain that his “blood lust” seems to be getting stronger. Narrators typically center a story and provide a stable, authoritative perspective from which it can be viewed. They are also meant to be believed and trusted, at least in most cases. But, if Bateman simply “isn’t there,” then there is no such perspective from which we can view what we read or see. Ellis himself has been quite clear that it is up to readers to decide whether Bateman actually commits the various horrific crimes he claims to commit, whether he is simply fantasizing about his murders, or whether he literally hallucinates that the commits the murders, but actually doesn’t. And, of course, it could be some mixture of all three.

To my mind, it is fairly clear that Bateman does not, within the world of the narrative, commit most of the crimes that he claims to have committed, though this aspect seems to be clearer in the novel than in the film. (Among other things, some of the most anatomically unlikely murders in the novel are excised from the film, which tends to minimize the depiction of violence, especially against women.) In either case, though, it would simply be too difficult to get away with so much murder, regardless of the fact that his wealth and social status would, to an extent, deflect attention away from him. Thus, in the film, we see the bloody axe murder of Allen, then follow Bateman as he drags the body (in an overnight bag) out of the building, past the doorman in the lobby, and past Carruthers, who happens by on the street, expressing admiration for the overnight bag. Bateman then stuffs the body in the trunk of a cab and transports it somewhere that is not shown in the film. He himself eventually goes to Allen’s own apartment, where he is chagrined to discover that Allen’s apartment is obviously more expensive than his own. (The novel here again goes even farther, stipulating that Bateman accidentally wears the bloody raincoat all the way to Allen’s apartment without arousing suspicion.) He then takes some of Allen’s things to make it look as if Allen had gone on a trip, leaving a message on Allen’s answering machine, in which he imitates Allen’s voice to let callers know that Allen was away in London.

Beyond including such unlikely details, both the novel and the film present substantial information that contradicts Bateman’s narrative. Throughout the film, for example, he is shown making outrageous and threatening remarks to various people who somehow don’t notice, suggesting that he is really just fantasizing about making such remarks. In one club scene with some of his associates and several young women, he seems to tell one of the women (a blonde model) he is into “murders and executions,” and she hears it as “mergers and acquisitions,” which might well be what he actually said. Later, he gets in a cab with the model and then we spot her head wrapped in plastic and stored in his fancy fridge, but we have to wonder if that is just his fantasy, especially if we know that, in this same club scene in the novel, he had imagined her horribly murdered.

Near the end of the film, meanwhile, Bateman returns to Paul Allen’s apartment, where we have been led to believe he has some bodies stored in a closet. There, he discovers no bodies; in fact, the apartment is vacant, and a realtor who is showing it assures him that the apartment does not belong to Paul Allen. Soon afterward, Bateman encounters his own attorney, Harold Carnes (Stephen Bogaert), who apparently mistakes him for someone named “Davis” and says the confession he phoned in as Bateman was hilarious, but unbelievable because Bateman is too big of a spineless dork to murder anyone. He also assures him that he has recently had dinner in London with Paul Allen, who is alive and well. All in all, the film makes us wonder how much of the whole Paul Allen narrative exists only in Bateman’s fevered imagination, including his encounters with Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe), the detective who is supposedly investigating Allen’s disappearance.

Kimball is certainly characterized quite oddly. He dresses very well for a private investigator, and his hair style is much like that worn by Bateman and all of the other Wall Street guys in the film. In the book, this similarity is even more clear, as it is stipulated that Kimball wears designer clothes and is about Bateman’s age. Kimball looks a bit older in the film because Dafoe was in his mid-forties at the time of filming, though the visual parallels between Kimball and Bateman are still clear. In both versions, Kimball mysteriously disappears, and other aspects of the film make us wonder whether Bateman has imagined him altogether, his guilt driving him to imagine a detective on his trail. In the film, the possibility that Kimball might be Bateman’s projection is further emphasized from the fact that, when he first arrives in Bateman’s office to interview him, he his carrying a fancy briefcase similar to Bateman’s. On a return visit in the film (he interviews Bateman only once in the novel), Kimball pulls a CD out of that briefcase that just happens to be Fore!, the 1986 album by Huey Lewis and the News that Bateman glowingly reviews at length in the novel, but with which he here claims to be unfamiliar, saying that he doesn’t really “like singers.” At a bare minimum, it seems likely that Bateman, if he has not imagined Kimball altogether, has at least misperceived the detective, remaking him in the image of the interchangeable men with whom Bateman is familiar. This prospect, of course, also raises the possibility that one reason why all of the men in Bateman’s circle are so similar is simply that he perceives them that way because his imagination is so limited that he can’t picture them being any other way.

Granted, it also makes satirical sense that all of these men would be similar because they have all been produced by the same system. But, in some ways, it doesn’t really matter how one views the fundamental question of how much of the film (or novel) is imagined by Bateman. Bateman is a fictional character so of course he doesn’t actually commit any of the crimes related in the novel or portrayed in the film, because he doesn’t actually exist, in the same way that no fictional character actually exists. In Bateman’s case, though, there is a very real sense in which he is such a hollow man that he doesn’t exist even within the fictional world of the text. Near the end of the novel (in a passage that is repeated, in abbreviated form, near the end of the film), Bateman openly proclaims that “there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being” (376­–77).

Indeed, anyone seeking to read this novel or film on a realistic level might be tempted to feel a certain sympathy for the emptiness and pain that Bateman appears to be feeling. This sort of reading would emphasize the confessional quality of the text, noting the way in which Bateman is clearly reaching out for help, hoping to be caught. He even attempts to confess his (possibly imaginary) crimes to his lawyer, but the lawyer takes the confession as a joke. But to attempt any sort of realistic interpretation of Bateman’s psychology would be to miss the point entirely. He quite literally isn’t there as a real human being because he is an allegorical figure intended to comment on the soulless materialism of the Reaganite 1980s.

Bateman is clearly portrayed as thoroughly insane in both the novel and the film of American Psycho, but his insanity is less a personal malady than a manifestation of the social realities of the 1980s. It is also a manifestation of certain cultural realities. In particular, Bateman would seem to serve as a perfect illustration of FredricJameson’s well-known discussion of the psychic fragmentation of individuals in the postmodern world. Jameson argues, in his seminal book on postmodernism, that the experience of alienation that was so prominent as a motif in modernist culture has in postmodernism become so radical as to become a psychic fragmentation that destabilizes personal identity altogether. In an earlier formulation (published in 1983), Jameson compares postmodern psychic fragmentation to the experience of the schizophrenic. Drawing upon the work of Jacques Lacan, Jameson argues that, amid the increasing complexity and fragmentation of experience in the postmodern world, the individual subject experiences a loss of temporal continuity that causes him or her to experience the world somewhat in the manner of a schizophrenic patient. The schizophrenic, Jameson says,

is condemned to live in a perpetual present with which the various moments of his or her past have little connection and for which there is no conceivable future on the horizon. In other words, schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the “I” and the “me” over time. (“Postmodernism and Consumer Society” 137)

Jameson, of course, is here speaking metaphorically and clearly does not intend to suggest that living in the harried and confusing world of late capitalism makes everyone medically schizophrenic. But his formulation does seem to describe Bateman’s condition quite well. It also suggests that characters with certain psychological disorders, such as Bateman, might also function metaphorically as effective representations of the fragmented nature of life under late capitalism. Granted, Bateman is literally mentally ill, but everything about American Psycho (including the title) suggests that his condition should be read allegorically as a commentary on broader phenomena in American society. There are also many other examples of films that employ characters with certain mental conditions to stand in for the kind of psychic fragmentation associated by Jameson with postmodernism.

It is also crucial that Jameson sees the characteristics of postmodern culture as a direct consequence of “late” capitalism, or the global form of capitalism that has now evolved into neoliberal. Indeed, for Jameson, capitalism and postmodernism are so intertwined that he sees postmodernism as the “cultural logic” of late capitalism, a phenomenon that is centreally informed by the commodification of everything. Bateman, of course, is also depicted in American Psycho as a direct product of the capitalist system, while he tends to view everything from the products of popular culture to human beings (especially women) purely as commodities for his consumption, literalized in the latter case by his tendency toward cannibalism.

For example, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, released the same year as American Psycho is another violent crime drama built on the fragmented psychological condition of its protagonist. Here, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) has suffered a brain injury that renders him unable to retain new memories for more than a few minutes. Thus, Shelby lacks any real sense of the connectedness of one moment to another, thus literalizing the fragmented and schizophrenic experience of time that Jameson associates with postmodernism. Meanwhile, the editing of Memento mimics Shelby’s disjointed movement through time, leading to considerable interpretive confusion as audiences try, along with Shelby, to piece together the events of the film as they are presented to them.

More recently, Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019) features a point-of-view character in Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck whose mental condition also calls into question everything we see on the screen—including a series of murders ostensibly committed by Fleck. Indeed, Fleck functions throughout Joker as another cinematic version of the unreliable narrator, leading to considerable postmodern interpretive uncertainty. Joker, meanwhile, makes for a particularly interesting pairing with American Psycho, partly because the action of both films takes place in the 1980s and partly because the first victims of Fleck’s apparent killing spree are a group of Wall Street guys who might have been directly lifted from Bateman’s circle in American Psycho, while Fleck himself is exactly the type of unfortunate who might have been a victim of Bateman. In addition, Fleck’s mental illness is exacerbated by Ronald Reagan’s cuts to federal support for mental health programs (Booker, No Joke 133–37). Fleck is thus a sort of allegory of the kinds of people who suffered as a result of Reagan’s policies, just as Bateman is an allegorical stand-in for the kinds of people whom Reagan’s policies encouraged.

It is thus entirely appropriate that American Psycho ends with a scene in which Bateman is seated in a restaurant with Bryce, Van Patten, and McDermott, trying to decide where to go later. On the television, we see Ronald Reagan delivering a speech about the Iran-Contra affair, in which Reagan, despite his repeated denials, was widely suspected of being fully aware of a sequence of illegal arms sales deals made by the U.S. government to Iran in order to generate funds to provide illegal aid to the murderous right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua[9]. Bryce reacts angrily to Reagan’s speech, asking “How can he lie like that?” Then, Bryce notes that Reagan “presents himself as this harmless old codger, but inside …” Bateman seemingly completely unhinged at this point, thinks to himself, “Inside doesn’t matter.” Asked his opinion, Bateman simply says, “Whatever.” In this society, pervaded by lies, the truth is irrelevant and all that matters is appearance. The film then ends with a final interior monologue in which Bateman declares the meaningless of his confession. He has now concluded that, in the world in which he lives, everything is meaningless. A final closeup shot of his eyes shows the emptiness within.

American Psycho and American Popular Culture

Bateman is not just a product of the American society of the 1980s, with its glorification of greed and the ruthless quest for wealth; he is also a product of the popular culture (especially music) of the decade, something that is emphasized in both the film and the novel. As Rischard puts it, “Bateman cannot achieve his fantasies of control or dominance without pop culture organizing his desire around the commoditized objects and ‘hardbodies’ that male yuppies code as significant acquisitions” (439). Here, though, the film has a significant advantage, because it can actually let us hear the music on the soundtrack. The film also sometimes chooses different examples of music or other elements of popular culture than does the novel, perhaps because, being produced nearly ten years later, it has a better perspective on which elements of 1980s culture would still be most recognizable in 2000. For example, soon after the film’s opening restaurant scene, Bateman and his associates move on to a club that seems typical of the prominent club culture of the 1980s. (The club is unidentified in the film, though the novel identifies it as Tunnel, a fashionable New York club that opened in 1986.) As they enter the club in the film, “True Faith” by the British band New Order is playing loudly in the club, while in the novel the music playing at this point is Belinda Carlisle’s “I Feel Free,” which has less the feel of club music (but which helps develop the motif of Bateman’s contempt for the music of Carlisle). One of the first things we see in the club in the film involves three young women enacting a well-known pose associated with the iconic American television series Charlie’s Angels (1976–1981). Charlie’s Angels is not mentioned at all in the novel, but, given that a film adaptation of the TV series was released in 2000, it seems clear that this series was still very recognizable for audiences of the film version of American Psycho.

One of the most hilarious features of the novel is Bateman’s incredibly self-serious chapter-long reviews of various 1980s musical acts (reviews of a sort that might, these days appear in a blog or a Facebook post.) Such chapters are devoted to Genesis and Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis and the News, all prominent producers of 1980s pop music. Bateman’s taste might be a bit questionable (as when he prefers Collins to Bruce Springsteen), and it might be significant that he does not devote reviews to Michael Jackson or Madonna, surely the two most important pop acts of the 1980s. Still, his discussions are knowledgeable and coherent (unlike some of his discourse), if they do tend toward cliché (and even if his lofty opinion of Huey Lewis and the News seems especially eccentric). Indeed, from the point of view of 2023, Bateman’s music reviews sound like the articulate, but soulless, reviews that might be produced by ChatGPT. These musical reviews are also surprisingly lengthy in the novel, though they are compressed in the film and integrated into the action as Bateman relates them to several of his victims (who seem quite uninterested) as he is preparing to murder them. Thus, in his first murder of a named character, he invites his hated rival Paul Allen back to his apartment, then cavorts about the apartment in a plastic raincoat while discoursing on Huey Lewis, with Allen so inebriated that he seems completely unaware what I going on until Bateman brutally murders him with nice, shiny axe—with “Hip to Be Square,” the 1986 hit by Huey Lewis and the News, playing in the background on his upscale sound system. Hilariously, as he chops away at Allen, we can hear the lyrics “You might think I’m crazy, but I don’t even care” sounding in the background.

Later, when he entertains those two prostitutes, he plays “In Too Deep” (from the 1986 Genesis album Invisible Touch) while delivering his review of Phil Collins and Genesis, in which he declares Invisible Touch to be an “undisputed masterpiece … an epic meditation in intangibility.” In fact, this album received a great deal of negative criticism and was widely perceived as a decline from the previous work of the band, largely due to the influence of the pop inclinations of Collins, whom Bateman reveres. For example, Jim Allen, reviewing Genesis for the Ultimate Classic Rock website, ranked Invisible Touch thirteenth among fifteen Genesis albums reviewed, summarizing his view as follows: “On the dark day in Genesis history when this record was released, the band fully transitioned from art-rock glory to radio-ready piffle, replete with all the worst that ‘80s overproduction had to offer. The fact that just the tiniest bit of the ‘old’ Genesis is discernible in a couple of tracks is the only thing that edges this album a notch ahead of We Can’t Dance.” Then, as the trio proceed to have sex in the film, we hear “Sussudio,” a 1985 solo effort from Collins that Bateman declares to be his personal favorite. This song, though, was widely ravaged by critics, who saw it both as unoriginal (derivative of Prince’s 1982 song “1999”) and as vapid gibberish.

One popular act of the 1980s of which Bateman is not a fan is Carlisle, whose airy, upbeat pop hits were some of the highlights of the popular music of the decade. Carlisle, in fact, is entirely missing from the film. During that trip to Tunnel in the novel, however, Bateman complains that it is hard to carry on a conversation because of the volume level of “I Feel Free” (a song from her 1987 megahit album Heaven on Earth), which also happens to be playing in the club when Bateman makes a subsequent trip there. Meanwhile, the biggest hit on Heaven on Earth, of course, was “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” one of the biggest musical hits of the decade and one of the biggest reasons why so many people seem to remember the pop music of the 1980s as light, happy, and optimistic. This song never plays in either the novel or the film, but the novel features a scene in which Bateman has lunch with Bethany, his old girlfriend from Harvard. When she notices his leg shaking with nervousness, he claims he is just reacting to the music playing in the restaurant (something he calls “New Age Muzak” to himself), and then makes a wild guess that it might be “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” given its ubiquity, though Bethany says she can’t hear any singing (235).

Bateman also constantly watches both films (on 1980s-era videotape) and television in the novel, a motif that is again de-emphasized in the film. At one point, though, the film does show the famous final moments of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) playing in the background on television while Bateman does crunches in his apartment as part of his extensive exercise regime. Among other things, this film, along with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), were crucial inspirations for the wave of slasher films that, beginning with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), became the dominant force in American horror film in the 1980s.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre obviously provides some appropriate background to American Psycho (and Bateman shows familiarity with it in the novel, as well), though the slasher craze of the 1980s is even more significant as a gloss on this film. The original novel appeared as the original slasher cycle was winding down and clearly partakes of some of the energies of that cycle, even if Bateman occupies a very different socio-economic position than most slashers. Perhaps the most important implication of this link between American Psycho and the slasher cycle of the 1980s is its reminder of how dark and violent the popular culture of the 1980s often was, an aspect of the culture of the decade that was clearly related to the sense of many in American society that things were going very badly. This cycle definitely owes something to certain realities of the decade, including the fact that it was one of the peak periods for actual serial killings in all of American history. In addition to citing Ed Gein, Bateman himself might have taken some inspiration from Ted Bundy (who was extensively researched by Ellis while writing the novel), who shared with Bateman the fact that he was an unusually handsome serial killer whose crimes often involved the sexually inspired killings of young women. Indeed, Bateman mentions Bundy several times in the novel and seems to sympathize with the famous serial killer, as when he complains that a news report on Bundy’s murder featured an “unfairly bloated head shot of Bundy” (364).

Finally, the rise of videotape rental culture that was such a crucial element of American culture in the 1980s is also central to the texture of American Psycho. Bateman’s constant use of the claim that he was “returning videotapes” as an alibi becomes a running joke, though it also reminds us that most videotapes were, in fact, typically rented during the 1980s, a time when such tapes were still quite expensive to purchase. In the novel, we see Bateman renting his favorite film, Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984), for the thirty-eighth time. I have elsewhere described Body Double thusly: “In Body Double Hitchcockian motifs and shots are mixed with elements of graphic slasher films, schlocky horror films, and hard-core pornography to produce a mixture of Vertigo and Rear Window that constantly verges on campy self-parody, yet somehow manages to be a fairly effective thriller nevertheless. In addition to its excessively overt nods to Hitchcock, Body Double also openly engages the genre of the horror film, acknowledging De Palma’s participation in that genre. Further, Body Double introduces a dialogue with the genre of pornographic films, almost as if in defiance of critics who have seen something pornographic in De Palma’s apparent fascination with the violent penetration of female bodies” (Postmodern Hollywood 130­–31). In short, Body Double is a film with some artistic merit, but we can safely assume that Bateman is interested in it for its more prurient aspects, including inventively graphic violence against women and its dialog with pornography. It is also notable that Body Double participates in the cycle of neo-noir films that were so prominent in the 1980s.[10]

Body Double does not feature in the film version of American Psycho, though we do see a pornographic film playing in the background in Bateman’s apartment at one point. One thing that is more clear in the novel than in the film, though, is that pornography is an important inspiration for Bateman, who provides us with almost ludicrously detailed and graphic accounts of his various sexual encounters in ways that seem to have been influenced by his watching of pornographic films. Still, videotape rentals are presented as a prominent part of Bateman’s life in both the novel and the film, just as one of the key features of American popular culture in the 1980s was indeed the rapid spread of videotape culture. Commercial videocassette recorders (VCRs) were introduced in the mid-1970s but were initially too expensive for most American households. In the course of the 1980s, though, prices of VCRs dropped significantly, making the technology widely acceptable and opening the videotape rental business to a mass market.

The wide availability of videotape rentals greatly expanded the access of American consumers to various sorts of films, with a special emphasis on pornography, which had until then been extremely difficult to acquire for home consumption. However, the distribution of pornographic films expanded rapidly in the 1980s, with the confluence of the rise of videotape culture and a number of legal rulings that largely protected the pornography industry as a form of free speech. Videotape rental shops burgeoned all over America in the 1980s, with sanitized national chains such as Blockbuster (which did not rent pornographic film) eventually emerging as dominant. But many local rental shops featured back rooms filled with “adult” videos and some shops specialized in adult rentals altogether. The explosive growth of the market for adult video rentals has given the 1980s as reputation as something of a Golden Age in home viewing of pornography, though the term “Golden Age of Porn” is usually applied to the period 1969–1984, when legal protections led to the rise of an adult film industry that was oriented toward theatrical exhibition of professionally-made adult films shot on 35-mm film with relatively high production values. The rise of videotape culture, though, virtually wiped out the theatrical market for adult films, leading to an amateurization of the adult film industry that would eventually culminate in today’s Internet culture, in which amateur adult videos have become dominant.

Once again, 1980s culture was not quite as idyllic as we sometimes want to remember it as being. Still, the satire of 1980s American culture and society in both versions of American Psycho is now particularly important given the prominent tendency in recent American popular culture nostalgically to look back on the 1980s as a more innocent time of simple pleasures and bright, cheerful popular culture, dominated by films such as E.T. (1982), Ghostbusters (1984), or The Goonies (1985) and music such as Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” Yet popular 1980s films such as the slasher cycle or the neo-noir cycle emphasized the darkness of the decade, while subsequent films that are thoroughly situated in the actual cultural context of the 1980s, such as American Psycho or the more recent (and more commercially successful) Joker[11] remind us that the 1980s were a time of increased political repression, stepped-up economic inequality, and a popular culture informed by an unprecedented amount of darkness and violence. Such reminders, though, have largely gone unheeded in the headlong rush toward the conversion of the 1980s into an object of cultural nostalgia, a process that also provides contemporary cover for the neoliberal injustices that have their roots in that decade.

Works Cited

Booker, M. Keith. No Joke: Todd Phillips’s Joker and American Culture. Auteur-Liverpool University Press, 2023.

Booker, M. Keith. Postmodern Hollywood: What’s New in Film and Why It Makes Us Feel So Strange. Praeger, 2007.

Bradshaw, Peter. “Nightmare on Wall Street.” The Guardian, 21 April 2000, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2000/apr/21/breteastonellis. Accessed 23 January 2023.

Colby, Georgina. Bret Easton Ellis: Underwriting the Contemporary. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Ebert, Roger. “American Psycho.” RogerEbert.com, 14 April 2000, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/american-psycho-2000. Accessed 23 January 2020.

Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. 1991. Vintage-Random House, 2006.

Ellis, Bret Easton. White. Picador, 2019.

Graham, Matt. “Twenty-First Century Postmodernism: The Legacy of American Psycho in the Era of Donald Trump.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 44, no. 3, September 2021, pp. 223–36.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.

Rischard, Mattius. “Masculine Capital / Yuppie Patriarchy: Visualizing the Noir Commodity in American Psycho.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 62, no. 4, Winter 2020, pp. 437–462.

Notes

[1] Ironically, one character in the novel teases Bateman by calling him “Batman,” oddly foreshadowing Bale’s later casting as the Dark Knight.

[2] In both the novel and the film, Bateman does repeatedly use the phrase “just say no,” which was prominently connected to an anti-drug ad campaign headlined by Nancy Reagan throughout the 1980s.

[3] For a detailed examination of the continuity between Reagan and Trump, see Booker (No Joke).

[4] Bateman does mention Psycho in the novel, claiming that he found the famous shower scene disappointing because the “blood looked fake” (108). This comment, of course, is a sort of inside joke, given the well-documented extent to which Hitchcock and his crew went to try to make the blood in their film look realistic.

[5] Hoffritz cutlery was sold in its own chain of upscale (but not all that upscale) specialty retail stores that was founded in New York in 1932 and that became very popular in the 1980s, expanding rapidly through the early 1990s until over-expansion drove the firm into bankruptcy in 1994. The film carefully provides a number of such detail, just as Bateman’s narration in the novel provides comically excessive descriptions of 1980s brand name products, especially the upscale clothing brands worn by Bateman and his Wall Street associates.

[6] This character is named “Paul Owen” in the novel, just as the film’s “Timothy Bryce” was “Timothy Price.” Apparently, these changes were made in the film to avoid potential legal problems when it was discovered that there were real Wall Street guys with the names “Paul Owen” and “Timothy Price.” However, the name changes are also quite appropriate in that they add to the motif of the fungibility of the characters of all the Wall Street money guys.

[7] This attitude is emphasized in the novel by Bateman’s consistent tendency to refer to desirable young women as “hardbodies.”

[8] This particular moment does not appear in the novel, though the novel’s Bateman does at one point saw a woman in half with a chain saw as part of a killing that is far more graphic than anything that appears in the film (329).

[9] In this speech, Reagan notes that there are seventeen months left in his administration, which would place the action in approximately August of 1987. (The actual speech was delivered on August 2, 1987.) A speech by Reagan at the end of novel is identified as occurring in the early days of the subsequent Bush administration, which would place the end of the novel in early 1989.

[10] The re-emergence of the dark, cynical energies of film noir as “neo-noir” was particularly strong in the 1980s, including such examples as Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984), and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), as well as De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), and Body Double.

[11] See Booker’s No Joke for a detailed examination of Joker in this context.