Dismissing Patrick Bateman: Imitation and Control in American Psycho (2000)

IMDb categorizes American Psycho first as a comedy and then as a crime drama. Perhaps comedy is the closest word they had to satire. Either way, genres come with certain expectations and tropes, the kind which define a film as one thing vs another. While I am generally interested in overlapping genres, as stories are rarely so single fitted, American Psycho relies on a certain genre for its commentary. Its satire hinges on the serial killer film genre, crime thrillers which typically focus on a male killer who murders sexualized women in a sexualized way. Films where the camera will focus on the victim’s body while they are murdered and thus become an extension of the killer. Like many other serial killer films, American Psycho divided audiences, as some appreciated its nuances and reconfigured gaze, but others called it sick, disturbing, and all-together reprehensible. That is largely because the film uses violence in a direct way, focusing on the toxic masculinity which has been cultivated and encouraged by our current media and capital landscape.

I assume this comedy category was in some way related to that reception, as creators wanted to ensure that people recognized its satirical elements rather viewing it as a straightforward thriller, as many initially did. The film might take these issues seriously, but not so serious as to give the by-product of these systems (Patrick Bateman) any respect. Like a satirical comedy, the film reflects something real that makes us uncomfortable. American Psycho is disturbing both because of its protagonist and the very real system through which he operates.

“We have to encourage a return to traditional moral values”.

American Psycho was intended to be close read. It asks the viewer several times, very directly, to question what is happening, why, and finally, if the audience and Western culture is in any way complicit with Bateman’s behaviour. One assumption about the film is that it operates in the same way as Bateman, as though Bateman’s opinions, sexism, and violence are celebrated by the film. The opposite is true, as the medium and its character operate on different levels. Both close read situations and details, but only the medium is successful in seeing the larger picture. The fact that the film and Bateman are working against one another poses a big question: does the world see things the way Bateman does, or are they just complacent enough to let him behave that way? Spoiler alert, the film has an ambiguous ending, where neither you nor Bateman are sure if he killed people, or if the murders were some extensive revenge fantasy. I would suggest that both possibilities are true, and that you can switch between these readings. Each offers an interesting and important note about Bateman, while also dismissing any sense of power he tried to assert earlier in the film.

To explain what I mean by ‘dismissing power’, I want to focus on four aspects of the film: skin, clothes, music, and drawing. These are all aspects of Bateman’s curated personality, and although Bateman seems very self-aware of these items, something is happening outside of his perception. Something working outside of him. Bateman might be in control of a camera in a few sequences, but he is ultimately not the director of his own film. Mary Harron is the director, and her work is a conscious dismissal of Bateman and every trend, pose, and cut he uses, he just doesn’t realize it yet.

“I think my mask of sanity is about to slip”.

One of the most famous sequences in American Psycho is Bateman’s morning routine. We see how meticulous he is in taking care of himself. Bateman’s appearance, and the process through which he maintains it, is as much of a trend as his apartment. And like any trend, Bateman is not actually important or noteworthy. There are multiple scenes where people mistake him for another vice president at the company, and even Bateman admits that they look identical, except Bateman has better hair.  Much like the business card competition we later see in the film, Bateman’s physical appearance is a way of introducing himself, of proving that he belongs and that he understands trends more than some simpleton. He goes out of his way to explain his method in the morning routine scene, and that is because none of it comes naturally. Bateman has spent significant time mapping a skin schedule, unpacking his favourite songs, and getting away with murder. We don’t see how long any of these things take, but the level to which Bateman talks about them suggests that everything about his personality is artificial. The people he encounters only operate on the surface of these trends; they do things but never examine why. Bateman prides himself on his ability to close read, operating underneath these other figures. The film visualizes this in a few conversations, like when he threatens to murder a female bartender because she questions his drink tickets, and therefore his image/power. The woman doesn’t hear him over the music, meaning that he is speaking underneath the noise. The trendy song is so loud that it covers him, just like the lotion covers his inhuman qualities.

Bateman is obsessed with human behaviour, the things he cannot naturally replicate. It’s why he has a telescope in his apartment, pointed at the apartment across from him, not the sky. He has been watching people, basing what he does on how they behave. He doesn’t have an original thought in his head, he just thinks about unoriginal things in great detail. Bateman mentions in his famous monologue that, “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me, only an entity”. This suggests that Bateman is a trend, or a personified concept. Bateman knows that he is not original, and tries hard to maintain that, but he is actually less than unoriginal, as the film goes on to suggest. Bateman is not an abstraction, or anything worthy of thought, he is just a subset of an idea. He is part of capitalism, not capitalism itself, and although he is somewhat self-aware, that doesn’t last long. If we want to read the film as a modern adaptation of Dorian Gray, the painting would be capitalism. It is what contains and disguises all of Bateman’s horrible actions, like his expensive anti-aging lotions. But Bateman would not be Dorian here, he would be a stroke of paint, indistinguishable from the larger canvas.

My favourite weird thing about this lotion sequence is the Les Mis poster right above Bateman’s toilet. He looks at it while peeing, which is essentially taking a piss on the musical’s sentiment on community, revolution, and anti-capitalism. The poster is also noteworthy for it’s colour pallet. Everything in Bateman’s apartment is grey, black, and white. The only dashes of colour are in his meat filled fridge and on this poster. Even then, these colourful inclusions are all one tone per area, no overlap or patterns. Bateman occasionally wears a tie with a pattern, but he is largely monotone himself. There is no room for overlap in his life, not even in its more vibrant and violent shades. Bateman eventually realizes that he cannot stop the overlap in his life, as his work begins to blend with his murder. He puts more importance on a business card than someone’s life, yet eventually things bleed over an inconvenient way. The investigator visits his office, he doodles about death in his planner, he brings up serial killers to work colleagues. Bateman cannot distinguish his business and killer personas, and ultimately, the film suggests that they were always overlapped.

“Because I want to fit in”.

Film has a strange relationship with lotion. If someone mentions lotion in a film, it’s rarely good. Think about it, what was the last film you saw where lotion wasn’t inherently sinister? Take Silence of the Lambs, the famous “it rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again”, the whole preparation of the skin. There is something similar in Fight Club, as Tyler Durden makes soap out of liposuction fat and sells it to women. Doctor Who even features a female villain who is obsessed with moisturizing and is just a stretched piece of skin. What unites these examples is that they all focus on women in a disturbing context. Moisturizing, and skin care in general, is still seen as a very feminine thing, or something which is used against women. Good skin care might be universal, but it’s characterized as strictly feminine in film. That tradition contrasts Bateman’s routine, as he not only uses moisturizer, he uses an extensive number of products every morning in an specific order based on day and activity. There are a few ways we could read this skin sequence, and each are true. The moment where Bateman peels off his gel mask relates to his monologue about wearing a mask, and being just flesh underneath, no soul or person. Peeling a mask back suggests that Bateman is revealing his true self, or rather lack thereof. That explains why the mask is translucent, as from a distance, it looks like he is not wearing one. Alternatively, Bateman’s face after he removes the mask is dewy and clean, like he has been reborn or become self-aware at the same time as this monologue. A third reading, however, relates to the very first scene in the film, the feminine restaurant.

The title sequence for American Psycho blends cooking, blood, orchestra, and murder in it’s first shots. It collapses these things, makes them one in the same. What initially looks like a murder, a knife and red, is just dinner being prepared with dramatic music. We even get a shot of a black opera glove stabbing a strawberry desert with a fork, and the oozing red makes it looks like murder. This introduces the concept that style and trend are intrinsically connected to murder and performance, a relationship which Bateman has given plenty of thought to. But that is just the opening moments, the restaurant scene itself continues to emphasize something which deeply troubles Bateman: femininity. The men are eating at a “chick restaurant”, as it is pink and frilly. These grey-suited men don’t fit this environment, and yet they stick around. I think the same can be said of the way American Psycho deals with female gaze. The film begins with a very stereotypical display of femininity, all pink and ornate. This pink setting belongs to the traditional rom-com, or the ‘so-called’ chick flick. By introducing such sexist abusers in this feminine place, the film establishes a female gaze which never leaves the film, it just isn’t as stereotypical as these pastels. The film doesn’t follow along with Bateman’s murder spree and sex obsession. We don’t see much violence, and when we do, it shot from a distance, is shown after, is obscured by something, or is interrupted (either by a person or the camera cuts away to just Bateman). This makes it notably clear that the film is not like Bateman, it’s a commentary on someone like him. We might see the same things that Bateman does, and hear his narration, but we are never close to these events. The camera swings out or cuts, focusing on how terrible Bateman is without glorifying or perpetuating the trauma he creates.   

“I’m in touch with humanity”.

Similar to the way Bateman casually mentions his opinions on different songs and films, he also dresses himself in a deliberate and close read way. The film asks us to analyze Bateman to a greater extent than Bateman analyzes himself, and it does so by declaring itself as a close reading exercise. If you watched American Psycho without recognizing its satirical elements and camera work, you would assume that the film is about an abhorrent and self-obsessed maniac who gets away with murdering whoever he wants. But that isn’t just what the film is interested in, despite what certain critics assumed. The film asks us to consider what destruction is, and how it is a symptom of a much larger systematic problem around masculinity and capitalism. For example, in the scene where Bateman kills Paul Allen with an axe, he dances around the living room while analyzing the song “Hip to be Square” by Huey Lewis And The News. He calls it, “a song so catchy that most people probably don’t listen to the lyrics, but they should! Because it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends, it’s also a personal statement about the band itself”, and then Bateman chops Allen’s head open. That statement could easily be said of the film itself, which means that American Psycho is telling its audience what it is and why it needs to use this violent figure by having its violent figure tell us directly. Simply put, the film wants its audience to listen to what is happening inside the dialogue, not just what the dialogue does in a conversation, but bellow that, its layers of meaning. Bateman does this with the song, as it’s not just catchy, it’s something else. The same mentality goes for the film, as it’s not just violent and disturbing, although that is what it is often known for, it’s symbolic for a larger thing: capitalism and male gaze.

Bateman loves dissecting pieces of media and women, even saying, “I like to dissect girls”. So, what does it mean that we are now dissecting his film? Are we like him? No, hopefully not. What Bateman fails to realize is that close reading is a flexible thing with no certainty. One person’s opinion is as valid as another’s, and with enough evidence, anyone can make an informed argument. American Psycho has a female director, Harron, and it refuses to recreate the male gaze which Bateman uses, cutting away and not continuing his violence. That means we could read the film itself as slightly feminine, despite Bateman’s hatred towards women. I think the greatest way to read this film is that it is inaccessible to Bateman, even though he spends the entire film trying to analyze his life. He is ultimately a passive figure in his own narrative, and thus his dissection is erased by the end of the film.

Bateman is also not good at close reading, as like I said earlier, he doesn’t have an original thought and cannot understand what is happening around him. That is where the ending comes into play, as Bateman suddenly looses control of the narrative and his perceived power. For most of the film, Bateman has randomly killed without any repercussions, but he still is terrified of getting caught, of someone being just a little bit smarter than he is. Bateman, the narcissist, assumes that everyone is out to get him, that everyone is paying attention to what he does, and that he is as notorious as the serial killers he often references. He finally breaks down after killing multiple people on the street and having a dramatic shootout with the police. He calls his lawyer, sobbing, and admits to everything he can remember, although he can’t remember certain victim’s names. He is so ready to be caught, ready for that blaze of glory and publicity. Nothing happens. In fact, every horrible thing he has ever done is erased and painted over. It’s not that he has gotten away with it, it’s that people don’t care about him or the victims, and that is something he can’t stand. Even when he confesses to his lawyer, the lawyer does not believe him and even suggests that one of his victims is not dead. Whether this is true or if some conspiracy, Bateman is left behind and left clueless.

“This confession has meant nothing”.

The film argues that Bateman is as replaceable as the people he deemed replaceable. When he arrives at his stolen apartment, where he was keeping bodies, everything has been painted white and it’s on the market as though nothing happened. The film ends with this very ambiguous choice- did Bateman do it or did he imagine everything? That choice is meant to be insulting for Bateman, as he, a person who always thought he was in control, cannot decide which is true. He is not an idea or an abstraction, like he suggested in the morning routine scene, he is a cog in a much larger machine that he is seemingly oblivious to. Sure, he understands the idea of trends and style, but he is not aware of what manipulates these styles. He thinks that by putting the style section of the newspaper on the floor right before killing someone that he is being poetic, that he is making some sacrifice to the term ‘style’. But he is not, he is missing the larger picture. It’s like looking at the world from a telescope pointed at the apartment across from you. You are not going to see the whole building or the piece of sky in which these people live, you are just going to see something small.

Does it matter if Bateman’s murder spree was imagined? The impulse was all too real, and that alone is troubling. Right before the end, Bateman’s assistant discovers that his planner contains multiple violent drawings of women being brutalized, and although some are familiar, many are victims we have not seen. It’s possible that Bateman has just drawn these women rather than killing them, much like the way certain male gazed obsessed films brutally kill women, matching violence with aesthetics. The drawing’s placement in the weekly planner makes it seem like murder and abuse are so routine that they belong in a carefully organized and work centric binder. I mention this binder because the film uses it and it’s ambiguous ending to suggest that whatever cartoonish murder happened earlier in the film was unremarkable. That goes for both readings, whether you believe Bateman did it or if he imagined it. If he did it, then society and capitalism are terrible and ultimately carry no repercussion or recognition. If he didn’t, then we have got a different and deeper invisible issue, and who knows how far it spreads. Bateman is replaceable and blends in, so what does this say about his work friends and company? What would be more troubling, that Bateman is the norm or that he isn’t? Either way, he gets away with it, and in doing so, the film critiques him and our current Western media, that cinematic landscape which names and glorifies killers rather than dismantling them, as Harron’s film does.