Four years ago writer-director Mary Harron took on the task of making the Factory hanger-on Valerie Solano into something more than a pathetic nonentity when she filmed the story of Solano's attempted murder of Andy Warhol in her 1996 film "I Shot Andy Warhol." Harron barely had a budget for the film, but she had Lili Taylor as Valerie, and Taylor found her way into a performance that revealed hidden complexities in her character, complexities that made the film more than just a quick-and-dirty tabloid story.
Now, as cowriter and director, Harron has taken on Bret Easton Ellis's novel of a man who's a Wall Street suit by day and a serial killer by night, and she's done her best to make it a distancing study of the worst excesses of American business culture in the 1980s. Her protagonist is young mergers and acquisitions hustler Patrick Bateman (the British actor Christian Bale), who, though we never see him do business, has the wherewithal to dine at every supposed hot restaurant in Manhattan, and snort lines of coke at every disco, and maintain an apartment that even in the '80s was in the million-dollar range.
What we see of Patrick alternates between sessions of empty talk with his fellow hustlers (they compare the quality of paper and type faces on their business cards -- they're all vice-presidents of the company) and sessions of empty sex with his mistress (Samantha Mathis) and with hookers. Except when he's killing. Who does he kill? He kills supposed rivals, he kills hookers, he kills a homeless man in an alley. He kills most of them in his apartment, except when he does it in the apartment of one of his victims. He spends endless time each day on making himself physically perfect, but he ends up being indistinguishable from his compatriots. His wardrobe is enormous and consists solely of conservative designer suits, but so do the wardrobes of all his fellows. There's a running -- I don't know if gag is the right word -- through the film in which people who know him well are always mistaking him for someone else.
As the film goes on, the pace of the violence quickens, and Patrick is haunted by a detective (Willem Dafoe) who's been hired by the family of one of his victims, while an escalating hysteria overcomes him, and leads to an orgy of killing that -- and I'll give this away right now -- is only in his mind. I give it away because it is a symptom of what's wrong with the film, which is, among other defects, that it does not have the courage of its convictions.
The dictionary tells us that a satire is a work of art that holds up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn; and that it contains trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm that is used to expose and discredit vice or folly. There's no question that "American Psycho" holds up many vices of the '80s to ridicule and scorn, from its closeups of the very worst of nouvelle cuisine on restaurant plates to the competitive battle for reservations at the hottest restaurants. Does it do it with wit? with irony? Even sarcasm? No, no, and barely. In order for satire to work, it must distance itself from its object, and let us in the audience see that it is not connected, not tainted, by that object. But "American Psycho" is fatally compromised because it tells us everything -- up to that climax -- as though it actually believes in its story. But you cannot have it both ways. Either the film distances itself from Patrick and his actions, or it simply represents them to us, and lets us accept them as real, for better or worse. Here Harron seems unable to make up her mind which way to go, and tries to give us both horror and sociology in the same film.
A deadly blow to any power -- or wit -- the film might have lies in Bale's performance. He's obviously been told to play his lines without giving away his true character, and he does his best; but his line readings have the fatal flaw of communicating enormous anger, and only anger. Even the monstrous Ted Bundy (whom Bateman quotes at one point) had a certain charm. Bale gives Bateman nothing human, so we in the audience have no reason to care about what's happening to him. And if we are to regard him only as an object of satire, an embodiment of '80s manias, then the script is just too shallow, too repetitious, too uninteresting to work.