Twenty years on from its release, Digital Editor Holly Pittaway peels off the face mask and holds up a mirror to the conflicting identities in the classic slasher-satire American Psycho
It’s been twenty years since American Psycho was released and you know what that means – put on that Phil Collins CD, whip out that expensive bottle of Chardonnay, and book that 8.30 res’ at Dorsia (they have a great sea urchin ceviche), because it’s time to celebrate this cinematic masterpiece.
Set in late 80s/early 90s New York in the ‘yuppie era’, the film follows Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a mergers and acquisitions man doing a nondescript job at a nondescript company, Pierce & Pierce. Bateman is your archetypal yuppie: he’s wealthy, successful, and attractive, but there’s just one catch – he’s also a serial killer. What could easily be a mindless slasher flick, though, is transformed through a fantastic script and star-making performance by Bale into an intelligent, satirical, not to mention hilarious, commentary on the deadlier face of Wall Street, consumerism, and greed. There’s so much to unpack about this film, but identity will be my focus here, specifically how Bateman’s two identities, personal and collective, are set in conflict throughout the film, with his murderous tendencies playing out the tension between the two until by the end we see that Bateman’s personal self never really existed.
If we want to analyse identity within American Psycho, it is important to understand the historical context that surrounds it. The ‘yuppie era,’ so-called due to the supremacy of the ‘young urban professional’ in the United States, was categorised by a specific group culture among city-dwelling yuppies. While the yuppie was typically denoted by their age (25-30) and income level ($40,000+ per year), they were also defined by their lifestyle. They were materialistic, parading their wealth through expensive purchases. They were lawless, probably with a penchant for cocaine, the wealthy’s drug of choice. They were also an exclusive club, with only the most privileged white Americans benefitting from the country’s expanding economy. Yuppie culture, then, easily lends itself to collective categorisation, with the very characteristics necessary to be a yuppie demanding that you conform.
A lot of people pin Patrick Bateman as a willing conformist – after all, one of his favourite Huey Lewis & the News tracks is ‘Hip To Be Square’, a song all about how fun it is to be like everyone else. You might also be tempted to take what he tells his supposed fiancée, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) – ‘I want to fit in’ – at face value, but then you’d be missing the point entirely. In fact, Bateman doesn’t want to fit in at all – he wants to be outstanding amongst his friends and colleagues. He wants to be seen as an intellectual, hence his multiple monologues on cheesy 80s pop. He wants to come across as an activist, righteously lecturing his friends at Espace restaurant about the importance of social issues like ending Apartheid and housing the homeless. He wants to be as physically attractive as possible, thus spending countless hours on his morning routine. He wants to be superior in business, hence his envy of Paul Allen (Jared Leto) after it’s revealed that he has a much better business card (though the viewer is unable to see the major differences in card design that Patrick eventually kills Allen over). He wants to be distinguishable from his colleagues due to his ‘better haircut,’ unsuccessfully however as he is constantly misidentified throughout the film. He wants to be the most interesting of his friends, which apparently he is, as Timothy Bryce (Justin Theroux) is the ‘only interesting person’ he knows, other than himself probably.
But the main thing that sets Bateman apart from the group, and thus makes him so outstanding by his own description, are his murderous tendencies; this is a part of Bateman that is distinctly his own – or is it? As the film wears on, we see Bateman morph further into the collective identity; like all his colleagues, he is a Vice President at Pierce & Pierce. His group of friends are indistinguishable from their co-workers, with all the brokers adopting the same hairstyles, suits, and glasses, except Luis (Matt Ross) whose individuality is a laughable flaw, and nearly a fatal offence when Patrick almost kills him over an ugly business card. Bateman is more easily and frequently mistaken for other people – first Halberstram by Allen, then Allen by the women he murders, then Mr Smith by a building attendant, and finally Davis by his very own lawyer, someone he supposedly talks to on the phone all the time. With increasing misidentification, Patrick begins to amp up the only part of his life that is uniquely his own by going on more regular and bloodier killing sprees, hiding the corpses at Allen’s apartment.
But not even murder can separate him from the masses. Nobody notices the quality that Patrick so reveres, even though he is objectively a terrible serial killer. When a friend runs into him at the dry cleaners with obviously blood-stained sheets, she unquestioningly believes his lie about it just being cranberry juice. When Luis bumps into Patrick loading a duffle bag containing Paul Allen’s body into his car, all he cares about is where he bought the bag from (Jean-Paul Gaultier, if you were interested). Even Evelyn, his own fiancée, doesn’t seem to notice the graphic illustration of a murdered woman Patrick draws at dinner. Not to mention all the times throughout the film when Bateman openly admits his murderous nature, admissions that are conveniently masked by loud music, mishearing, or the other person’s drunkenness.
When he finally thinks he’s gone too far after killing some cops, he confesses, ready to face the consequences of his actions, only to find Allen’s apartment emptied, cleaned, and listed for sale. Allen has supposedly just left town, and his lawyer refuses to believe Bateman’s confession because he allegedly had dinner with Allen twice in London (though of course, this is another case of mistaken identity). He wanders back to take his place between his identical friends, sharing their identical opinions, wearing their identical suits and hairstyles, as he realises ‘this confession has meant nothing.’ His mess has been cleaned up by the higher powers of Wall Street, and it sinks in that, no matter what he does, Patrick will never be his own person. The one aspect of himself that he deemed unique crumbles, as he realises that any one of his colleagues could be a serial killer by night (as, according to his lawyer, they’re all more capable than him). All that matters is that the cogs of the yuppie collective move cleanly forward, generating more cash to be spent on luxury suits, fancy haircuts, and designer glasses that will allow the group to more seamlessly blend together.
Now, let’s see Paul Allen’s American Psycho analysis.
American Psycho is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K UHD.
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