Male spree killers are in the news again, between the trial of Aurora massacre suspect James Holmes and the investigation of the Sandy Hook killer, Adam Lanza. Whenever mass violence occurs, the world searches for answers: access to guns? Sociopathic behaviour? What could cause a young man to murder innocents in cold blood?
In the aftermath of the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook elementary, the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, conducted a now-notoriously tone-deaf press conference on the subject. In a time when people were finally — it seems — calling for increased gun control laws in the United States, LaPierre’s speech was full of the same boogeymen and scapegoats that had been trotted out for years: violent video games, music videos and “blood-soaked slasher films” like Natural Born Killers and American Psycho.
This was one of the most boneheaded things I’d heard in a long time for many reasons, but the comment about a 13-year-old dark comedy was particularly striking, because American Psycho is actually undergoing a modern feminist reinterpretation. There are few characters so intensely misunderstood as the titular psycho, Patrick Bateman, depicted by Christian Bale. Condemned by some as a brutal misogynist in a woman-hating film and revered by others as the epitome of cool-headed style, Bale’s character and director Mary Harron’s film are actually much more sly than some viewers may initially realize.
Author Bret Easton Ellis wrote the novel American Psycho in 1991, and its publication sparked huge backlash. Feminist groups protested its gruesome descriptions of murder and torture, decrying it as the worst sort of misogyny; one group threw a bucket of fake blood on a bookshelf full of copies. The novel is narrated by Patrick Bateman, a wealthy and vain investment banker in 1980s New York. In stream-of-consciousness style, Bateman describes his daily life: his extensive skincare routine each morning, his feelings on proper etiquette and the high-class meals he enjoys with his co-workers at the hottest restaurants in town. Bateman is introduced as the ultimate yuppie, or young urban professional: he and his colleagues snort cocaine, compare their business cards, judge each other based on their haircuts and have nearly identical taste in suits. They cheat with each other’s fiancées and vacation in the Hamptons. In between lengthy diatribes on the merits of arugula and octopus salad, Bateman also describes the horrific murders he commits each night. As the novel progresses, his slayings become more and more sadistic, but increasingly unreliable as well. His violent sociopathy is held up against the casual sociopathy of the 1980s Me Generation, and towards the end of the book it’s difficult to tell the difference.
While the novel was optioned for film rights early in the 1990s, it was nearly impossible to find a screenwriter and director willing to take the project. Eventually, American Psycho was adapted for the screen and directed by filmmaker Mary Harron. She co-wrote the script with Guinevere Turner, a screenwriter and actress who had contributed to projects like The L Word and Dogma.
The women transformed Ellis’s novel into a viable film, stripping out most of the extreme violence and sex but keeping Bateman unsympathetic and cold-blooded. The screenplay refined the satirical elements of the novel, allowing the savage political humour to shine through. Bale struck a perfect balance of charisma and brutality, making Bateman a believable and frightening example of 1980s excess. When the film was released in 2000, it was met with a backlash similar to what the novel elicited; feminist organizations condemned the misogynistic violence, and post-Columbine-massacre media pundits wondered if young men would want to imitate Bateman’s stylish, confident mannerisms and his casual attitude towards murder.
The secret that Harron, Turner and Bale all know is this: Bateman is not a man to admire, not even a little bit. Harron says as much in the director’s commentary track for the film. She is occasionally approached by men who proudly proclaim that they’re like Patrick Bateman: they love suits, they dine at fancy New York eateries and they have corner offices and bright business cards. But Harron is always aghast — why would anyone want to be like Patrick Bateman? He’s so insecure that he has a panic attack over a co-worker’s superior business card. This is a man who speaks at length about the depth and grandeur of shallow pop bands like Huey Lewis and the News; he generates meaning where there is none in order to justify his enjoyment of these bands. He is a phoney, a shadow of a man; he gets away with murder because he and his colleagues are so frequently confused with one another. He prides himself on being an individual, but he blends seamlessly into a crowd. Bale was cast, in part, because he wanted to make the character as dorky as possible. While the book often drifts over the top, the American Psycho film is a blistering condemnation of this sort of arrogant male behaviour, not an endorsement of it.