Is my next date going to kill me? Mary Harron planted this exhausting, paranoia inducing thought into our brains with American Psycho.
In Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000), we follow Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a white collar executive in New York City’s world of investment banking. He’s obsessed with the same things as his co-workers: business cards, dining at five-star restaurants, cheating on his fiancée. There’s just one other thing that Patrick loves more: murder.
Harron’s classic slasher movie does more than just entertain: It analyzes the interactions that women have with men every day by making Patrick fit in with his male counterparts, even though he acts out in ways that seem jarring and unacceptable. Or do they? American Psycho, written by Harron and Guinevere Turner, should be acknowledged for its place as a film with feminist angles. Sure, it might not exist what we traditionally think a feminist movie should be, (it features brutal killings of women and outspoken sexism from the characters), but it calls out misogyny and the flaws of male society by comparing a serial killer to everyday men and their actions. The book’s satire focuses more on materialism. While this is still true in the film adaptation, Harron also effectively satirizes another subject that a potential male director could not: men.
During the course of Harron’s film we follow Bateman as he falls deeper into insanity and loses himself in his not-so-double life. Bateman hardly hides this second side of himself to his coworkers, friends, and the people he meets along the way. What calls this feminist analysis to my attention is the interactions that Bateman has with both men and women. Somehow, he completely fits in even though he says quite horrifying things to those around him. The women, when faced with this, don’t even pay him the attention that he might expect back. “You’re a fucking ugly bitch,” he says to one woman at a bar, “I want to stab you to death, and then play around with your blood.” She does nothing, just awaits the $25 for his drink. The lack of reaction implies that this is a regular occurrence for this woman. To her she did not have a close encounter with a serial killer, instead just an every-day interaction with a man. These moments are what Harron brings to the film. They’re plentiful but not overdone.
At the climax of the film, Bateman calls his lawyer and confesses everything he has done. It’s dramatic and detailed, and we know our antagonist is destined to lead to a life of prison. That is, until Bateman sees his lawyer the next morning. Bateman confronts him about the message, to which his lawyer responds, “That’s fabulous. That’s rich.” The lawyer thought that this was a practical joke on Bateman. What is so clever about these moments is that even when Bateman is at his most vulnerable, most susceptible to being caught red-handed for murder, he’s passed off as a joke.
Harron’s depiction of men in this movie shows how many things that they can get away with, both with their male and female acquaintances. While this argument might seem dramatic, it’s not so far-fetched for women even today, twenty one years later.
“Could my date actually kill me?” is a question that we as women must ask ourselves every single time, as we share our locations with our friends in hopes that they’ll notice if something has gone awry. The scary world that Harron created in American Psycho is real for women every time we walk home past dark, where every shadow is a threat. Real-life rapists like Brock Turner are often defended by their bright futures and athletic achievements. The media is often complicit instead of holding them accountable for their actions.
“I’d no idea people saw it as anything other than satire,” says Christian Bale of the source material. So why do we ignore the real intention of the movie and dismiss it as just another violent narrative? Critical reception of American Psycho doesn’t call this analysis into attention, even though the movie was well-rated by female critics. Male critics seemed not to be satisfied with the metaphorical aspect of the movie. Desson Thomson wrote for the Washington Post, “I mean, as Patrick, Bale’s most emotionally pressing dilemma is: Chainsaw or butcher knife?” Is this really true, or does this male critic just fail to see the more pressing dilemma that women are faced with every day? And Peter Rainer of New York Magazine brushed off the importance of Bateman’s reflection of men in general. “Clearly, Harron is sold on the Bateman-as-metaphor bit,” he wrote, “and, like Ellis, she over conceptualizes everything.” This critic is mistaking over conceptualizing for her good work building a world he just does not see from the perspective of Harron and female society.
American Psycho is coming up on its 22nd anniversary of its premiere at Sundance. It deserves a reevaluation as a feminist movie, and a great film created by female filmmakers. With the growing popularity of directors like Greta Gerwig and Chloe Zhao, Mary Harron’s work stands out as a unique and blunt depiction of the world that forces itself upon women every day.