Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” is a searing satire of yuppie culture and the excess of the 1980s. It’s an indictment of a society that values economic prosperity over any sort of discernible morality. And it raises a ton of important questions surrounding the nexus of masculinity, conformity and identity.
But I don’t want to talk about any of that nonsense. What I want to talk about is the most superficial question raised by the film: Was any of it real?
Ultimately, it’s something of a pointless question as the answer is, more or less, immaterial. It doesn’t change the message of the film in any major way. It doesn’t change its impact.
Plus, there really is no right answer and if there was one, it would cheapen the marvelous ambiguity that is a hallmark of the film.
But let’s give it a go anyway, shall we?
The film is constantly blurring the line between fantasy and reality, sanity and insanity. Is Patrick Bateman imagining all of this in his mind? Is he actually a psychopathic serial killer? These are the questions we seek to answer.
Now, I believe the key to all of this lies within Patrick’s most frequent refrain, “I have to return some videotapes.”
It might just be a clever little quip that Patrick uses to get out of uncomfortable situations, but I think it points to something deeper.
Throughout the movie, Patrick is obsessed with pop culture. He’s constantly sermonizing about one pop opus or another. And, in regards to his oft-repeated line, he watches and references a healthy amount of films and television shows.
Early on in the film, while attempting to make a reservation at Dorsia, Bateman has a porno playing in the background. It seems like sort of a throwaway thing at the time, a sight gag of sorts.
But it takes on new meaning later on in the film when Patrick essentially reenacts this porno when he hires two prostitutes.
He assigns them fictional names and even videotapes the whole affair as if he’s making a shot-for-shot remake of the pornographic film he viewed earlier.
Similarly, Bateman also has “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” playing in the background while he furiously does sit-ups.
Later on, he chases a hooker named Christie with a chainsaw and somehow manages to kill her by throwing the chainsaw down many flights of stairs. The film then cuts to Bateman sitting in a restaurant, drawing a picture of a woman who has been killed by, you guessed it, a chainsaw.
There is also a major scene that draws its inspiration from action films. Bateman goes on a rampage killing an old lady, a janitor and multiple policemen.
A swarm of cops begin to chase Bateman and when he shoots at their police cruisers, they blow up instantaneously and gloriously. Bateman takes a moment to look in awe at the explosion. He then stares at his gun in disbelief. Yet, all the while, his shiny, manicured exterior remains intact.
All of these examples are meant to serve as evidence to support my theory that the homicidal machinations of Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” are all figments of his imagination.
Patrick draws heavily from popular culture to construct his sick fantasies, but they’re nothing more than fantasies.
When he confesses his supposed crimes to his lawyer Harold Carnes, Carnes doesn’t believe him. He says it’s impossible, cites evidence that supports his reasoning and believes it all to be a big joke.
As Patrick concludes his so-called confession, he says,
My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone, in fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape, but even after admitting this there is no catharsis, my punishment continues to elude me and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself, no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.
Punishment eludes him because he has not actually done anything. There is no catharsis because he has not acted upon his lust for blood. And his confession has meant nothing because he never actually confessed to anyone but the audience. He had nothing to confess to.
Prior to this scene, Bateman’s secretary comes upon his notebook, which is full of perverse drawings of mutilated women and the like. This is where Patrick’s “murders” took place. This is the closest he came to bringing actual physical harm to anyone.
Hell, Patrick Bateman himself may be a figment of some other character's imagination, at least the version of Patrick Bateman we see onscreen.
Bateman is called by no less than four other names: Davis, Mccoy, Allen and Halberstram, which calls into question his true identity. When he confronts Carnes at the end of the movie, Carnes refers to him as Davis and says that his joke was flawed because “Bateman is such a dork, such a boring spineless light-weight.”
But this doesn’t match up with the chiseled, handsome image of Bateman we’ve seen throughout the film. The Bateman that can do a thousand crunches in one sitting is not the same Bateman described here by Carnes.
Thus, in my opinion, it was all an elaborate fantasy, a crisis of identity that unfolded only within Bateman’s (or someone else's) mind.
These ravenous fever dreams were just his way of coping with the crushing demands created by his intense desire for conformity. His homicidal hallucinations were just the unconscious expression of his latent contempt for the society of which he was a part.
Yes, Bateman is still a monstrous character, one who lacks the ability to feel any real human emotions besides "greed and disgust." But there may be salvation for him yet, if you prescribe to my reading.
Photo Courtesy: Lions Gate Films/American Psycho