Steven Spielberg is probably Hollywood’s best judge of very young talent ever. When Empire of the Sun, his misguided attempt at filming J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel, opened to critical derision—the public simply stayed away—in 1987, film critic Andrew Sarris raised eyebrows by his pronouncement that the star, thirteen-year-old Christian Bale, as Jim, surpassed even Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959) as cinema’s most compelling adolescent. (This was also around the time that Sarris misreported the death of Léaud, who is, as I write in 2004, gloriously alive and acting.) One may not wish to go that far while still believing that Bale is superb in Spielberg’s film. He has, since, given fine performances as Laurie, for Gillian Armstrong, in Little Women (1994), as Edward Rosier, for Jane Campion, in Portrait of a Lady (1996), as Arthur Stuart, for Todd Haynes, in Velvet Goldmine (1998), and he is now poised to be the new Batman. (In 1999, Bale even played Jesus.) The strapping young Welshman, though, dazzles most brilliantly as Patrick Bateman in Canadian filmmaker Mary Harron’s American Psycho, which Harron and co-scenarist Guinevere Turner adapted from Bret Easton Ellis’s much disparaged, controversial novel.
I have not read Ellis’s book, which has been condemned for its loving misogynism and graphic brutality. Bateman is a 27-year-old anal-compulsive yuppie businessman who attends to his face and body like a narcissistic Hollywood star. He also leads a double life, viciously murdering people, including strangers, and mostly women. In a dark alley he exhorts a homeless man to go get a job before stabbing and killing him and stomping his dog to death. Bateman is too big to spank, but one feels that something should be done to discourage his antisocial behavior.
But we like the guy and wish him success in each of his murderous ventures, not because we have anything against his victims (or, at least, against most of them), but because we just like the guy. Patrick tells us that he is emotionally vacant, painting himself as a sociopath, but we can see that his emotions range spectacularly, and that he feels frustrated and deeply unsatisfied with his upscale lot in life. And we admire his skill; when, from an upper high-rise landing he drops a chainsaw, its motor running, and halves the young woman fleeing from him in terror down the circular stairs, we cheer on his impeccable aim. Here is a fine example of the hand-eye coordination that once-U.S. president Ronald Reagan proclaimed as a benefit for kids who play violent video games.
Unless we are exceptionally dense, early on we realize that Patrick’s other life exists in fantasy, not reality, although the poor boy can’t tell the difference. If we have doubts, the impossible bull’s-eye with the chainsaw settles the matter. Harron hasn’t made a trick film, like The Sixth Sense or Memento; the truth is there for us plainly to see. It’s the contours of Patrick’s chaotic feelings, his being sadly lost in his own life, that we attend to—and, indeed, Bale, looking impossibly composed one moment, his face unhinged and undone the next, rivets our attention. This is an amazing performance.
Harron wisely subdues the violence, relegating most of it to off-screen events, and this also, cumulatively at least, clues us into what is and what is not going on. Reagan on TV, publicly attempting to explain away the Iran-Contra affair, becomes correlative to the hollow version of American life that Bateman exemplifies; satirically, the film “explains away” Bateman’s own bloody acts of cruelty. If the wit involved here somehow doesn’t quite come through, it is due to the fact that Reagan seems tossed in near the end of the film. The film either is or isn’t about Reagan’s America, and Harron might have been clearer and more forceful in the matter.
But this is good entertainment, lively and interesting, and the knowing beauty of Bateman’s apartment is a tribute to the film’s art director, Andrew Stearn. Above all, the film lends credence to Sarris’s Empire-ical judgment and seemingly catapults Bale to the pantheon of great film actors. I say “seemingly” because we thought the same thing about Anthony Perkins on the occasion of the original Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). Better luck this time, for all of us.
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