“No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”
Well, I guess we’re done here, then. There’s nothing to talk about it seems since nothing in the movie means anything.
I start with a poor attempt at a joke to highlight the difficulty of talking about this movie at all. It’s easy enough to talk about the pitch-black humor centered around Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman and his murderous impulses, but what do you do with a main character that intentional eschews any attempt at meaning? Well, therein lies the ultimate point about pointlessness.
Patrick Bateman is a yuppie in 1980s New York City who works in Mergers and Acquisitions for a large banking firm, but he never does a lick of work. Instead of working, he watches television in his office, doodles in his scheduling book, and has lunch. Inside his office he’s a loaf who contributes nothing, but outside of it he’s on a mad quest for status symbols. His apartment is expensive. Engaged to a woman he cares nothing for since he only cares about symbols, he has a regular affair with one of his friends’ fiancée. He works hard to keep his skin healthy and his body in tip top shape. He wears the best suits, and he’s particularly proud of his business cards.
This is one of the most famous scenes in 90s independent film, Bateman comparing his new business card with those of the men he works with. It’s an extremely funny scene as we watch Bateman steadily lose his composure in probably Christian Bale’s finest acting moment. Each card he sees after his own makes his feel less impressive. They all essentially look the same with small differences in font, card stock, and coloring, but for a man obsessed with status symbols, those differences mean everything to him. By the end, in his mind, after being completely outshone by three others he can barely hold himself up. His efforts at status have failed.
The other aspect of Bateman’s personality is that he has a strong bloodlust. When he sees Paul Allen’s card and how it trounces his, Bateman takes it personally. When Allen confuses him for someone else, Bateman takes the opportunity to get Allen drunk, take him back to his apartment, play some of Huey Lewis’ music for him (with a lecture taken directly from a review he read since he couldn’t analyze music on his own, most likely), and kill Allen with an axe.
The rest of the movie is Bateman fending off a police lieutenant with questions about Allen’s disappearance while settling into his bloodlust through both people he knows and those he doesn’t, mostly women. He hires prostitutes and beats them. He takes his secretary out for a date and almost fires a nail gun into the back of her head, only stopping as she earnestly reveals herself and her desires for life (the only person in the whole movie to talk so openly and genuinely) and at the call of fiancée. He brings one of the prostitutes back to sleep with a female friend of his, and then he murders them both (the prostitute gets a chainsaw through the abdomen he throws down a stairwell and hits her perfectly with).
This stuff is wildly uncomfortable with Bale giving an intense performance (pretty much his only acting gear), but it’s also filled with that pitch-black comedy. It’s funniest near the beginning, partially due to the shock factor of Bale looking so nice and acting so nastily, as the movie progresses it gets harder to take.
However, the movie ends curiously. Bateman tries to confess his murders to his lawyer over the phone, leaving a message. When he sees the lawyer the next day, the lawyer calls him by the wrong name, insists that Patrick Bateman is too boring to do such things, and Paul Allen is alive and well. Did Patrick do anything? Were his actions just the daydreams of a bored executive who did nothing all day? Is he so completely confusable with his peers (like their nearly identical business cards) that he really could just get away with it all? Does all of this really mean nothing as Bateman says while a video of Reagan giving a speech about Iran-Contra plays in the background? This is obviously a comment on the 80s somehow, and the yuppie culture that developed. This could be a companion piece to The Wolf of Wall Street, about men who descended on New York to take part in the economic boom of the period but ended up contributing nothing, becoming amoral leeches neck deep in different kinds of decadence and depravity. Patrick Bateman is unconnected from anything but the desire to become the most of his group.
Did any of it happen? It’s not the central point of the film, but I actually lean towards no. Bateman is a delusional psychopath with no ability to affect anything. He’s trapped in a world where he can only change the smallest of things that don’t matter, like the font on his business card. He’s angry at his inability to do anything and also still completely powerless.
What makes the movie, though, is its sense of humor and outrageousness. Outrageousness alone gets old, but mixed with that black humor and it gains a certain shelf life where even decades after its release, American Psycho can still entertain.