[box cover]

American Psycho: Unrated Version

Universal Home Video

Starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Reese Witherspoon,
and Chloë Sevigny

Written by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner,
from the novel by Bret Easton Ellis

Directed by Mary Harron

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

Is this really the direction that Mary Harron wants her career to go? With American Psycho, she has now made two films in a row about violent characters. In I Shot Andy Warhol, she offered an unduly sympathetic account of Valerie Solanis, the nutty Manhattanite who hated men and ended up attempting to kill Warhol for vague reasons. Here, she takes on Ellis's controversial novel and renders it in all its gory glory, though it is not as gruesome as the original book.

The book American Psycho was controversial before the film was even made. Ellis's original publisher passed on it when women on the staff complained about its subject matter. Vintage picked it up as a trade paperback original, but the media had reacted dimly to its efforts to parody Reagan-age consumerism by making a Wall Street yuppie a serial killer (though possibly only in his head). Like his true predecessor, John O'Hara, Ellis's concern is to catalog the fashions, eateries, and social rituals of the rich. He describes the corpses of the book's victims with all the gravity that he presents the facial gels his anti-hero, Patrick Bateman, uses in the morning. Today, the book is only a cult-item read among alternative 'zine types.

The movie of American Psycho ended up being just as troubled to make. Director Harron originally had Leonardo DiCaprio tapped to play Bateman, a natural role for the actor who appeared in The Basketball Diaries and other bleak material. But for whatever reason, Leo passed, and Harron ended up with Christian Bale, most famous as the kid in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. Now this particular reviewer has been carefully following Bale's subsequently disappointing career since his appearance in Spielberg's unrecognized masterpiece. As a youth, Bale was such a master of his facial expressions, it seemed doubtful that he would not go on to be an actor as important as Burton or Hopkins. That has not happened yet. Still, he is good, and his skills in Empire can't be attributed solely to Spielberg's handling of kids (which is overrated), given that most kids in the right circumstances are natural hams. Rather, as Bale aged his face — the actor's major tool, and one for the most part given to him, not forged from the surgeon's scalpel — became sharp and hard, and contrasted with the warmth of the parts he played.

With American Psycho's Bateman, Bale has a part that suits his physical dimensions. He is very good as the cool killer laying waste to rivals and women and street people who annoy him. He looks good in the suits, and walks with the arrogance of the ostentatiously wealthy. His voice, however, doesn't sound comfortable in the American accent he adopts (and which he also uses in the "making-of" featurette, but not in the extended interview with him also included on this disc). He sounds a little like Daniel Day-Lewis in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence — awkward, forced, and robotic in a part that needs an easy, slurring, arrogant speech. And like a Taxi Driver from the opposite end of the social scale, American Psycho has the main character narrating the movie and explaining his actions, which compounds the vocal distractions.

The rest of American Psycho is about Bateman's growing homicidal obsession. Engaged to a distracted woman (Reese Witherspoon), he spends his spare time picking up hookers and filming them having sex, and then torturing them, before killing them with increasingly elaborate methods (in one scene, he drops a chainsaw down a staircase and happens to catch a fleeing victim). His competitiveness with colleagues such as Jared Leto and others (over such things as their expensive but virtually identical business cards) can find no other expression than murder. This is an episodic film, the only "suspense" generated by the investigations of a private eye (Willem Dafoe) and the potential fate of Bateman's secretary (Chloë Sevigny). There is a suggestion that Bateman is a repressed gay, as shown when he runs away in horror after trying to strangle a friend in the bathroom, who mistakes Bateman's action as a longed-for come on. And at the film's end there is a clear statement that all the murderous activities he has engaged in throughout the movie have been imaginary, and there's the vague suggestion that he isn't even really Patrick Bateman at all, but someone else (in a limp borrowing from Fight Club).

Director Harron handles all this stuff in a routine manner, without any real visual zest. Paul Schrader, another clothes-obsessed artist, or Whit Stillman, who specializes in the world of such people, would actually have handled this material much better, except that Stillman wouldn't have taken on a project that so despised its characters. Instead, Harron turns American Psycho into a diatribe about the natural evil of men, who are, according to the full text of the film, both violent and futile at the same time. It is unlikely that this film will become any kind of cult item at all, given its lack of visual interest, and the violence is really only suggested in its bloody aftermath, rather than shown, thus frustrating the lowbrow gore geeks.

Universal's DVD edition of American Psycho comes with a widescreen transfer (anamorphic 2.35:1) that adequately captures the film's adequate cinematography. There are no noticeable artifacts. The single-sided, single-layered disc (SS-SL) also features Dolby Digital 5.1 in both English and French, and comes with subtitles only in English. Supplements include a 10-minute interview session with Bale wherein he says mostly predictable, feminist-approved things about playing a violent character. There is also a "making-of" featurette in which director Harron makes it clear that she thinks Bateman is typical of all males. Theatrical trailer, extensive text-only production history, reasonably detailed cast and crew filmographies. Keep-case.

— D. K. Holm

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