“Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.” – H. L. Mencken
“I’m in touch with humanity.” – Patrick Bateman
Despite the furor that accompanied both the film and the book, American Psycho is relatively straightforward and conventional. Patrick Bateman is a stand-in for the greed and shallowness of the 1980s, a man who seeks control with aggressive value judgments over status, fashion, and popular culture but ultimately loses his very sense of self to the vicissitudes of consumerism. The gruesome murders over the course of the film and novel, whether or not they occurred at all, are part of this same pattern of seeking control and status over other people and lashing out in violent rage when it cannot be instantly accomplished. You can congratulate yourself as a wise social critic if you can connect the dots to how Patrick Bateman personally kills people, and we call him a monster, but Wall Street manages to oppress and slaughter innocents around the world, and we reward them. (One loathsome specimen of a “critic” named Amy Taubin even manages to compare Bateman to George Bush, no doubt receiving praise for her daring.)
Feminists have obvious problems with American Psycho and some organized boycotts and protests at the time of publication. The film adaptation countered this mobilization by using a female director (Mary Harron) and a co-writer (Guinevere Turner) who is, of course, a lesbian. The spin is that the horrific violence Patrick Bateman inflicts upon women is simply a personalized representation of a patriarchal rape culture that imposes this violence every day. The “Pornography of Killing” essay strategically included with the DVD bemoans a “culture of gender brutality much broader than American Psycho.” Turner quotes author Brett Easton Ellis commenting that he thought American Psycho was a very feminist book. Thus, American Psycho is justified because it criticizes and inspires resistance to patriarchy, capitalism, consumerism, and, presumably, Ronald Reagan.
So there you have it. Write your essay or column, furrow your brow about whether Ellis has the right to even use his white male privilege to portray the culture even for even satirical purposes, collect your good grade and/or critical praise for your analysis, and call it a day.
Except it’s not quite that simple. America is dominated by a rigid egalitarian ideology imposed from above and we already know the “correct” way to interpret any artistic product before we even see it. The more “radical” or “challenging” it purports to be, the more predictable it seems in truth. The result is that audiences often are attracted to characters or ideas that they aren’t supposed to be. Hollywood disapproves but hypocritically rakes in the bucks. From white audiences laughing for unapproved reasons at Chapelle’s Show or Chris Rock, to the use of attractive Nazi aesthetics in anti-Nazi movies like Iron Sky or Inglourious Basterds, to identifying a bit too much with William Foster’s takedown of the Latino gang bangers in Falling Down, the “bad guys” are often more sympathetic or attractive than the so-called heroes and their syrupy sweet clichéd justifications.
Thus, we have girls tweeting about how sexy they find Patrick Bateman, the Patrick Bateman Halloween costume serving as a perennial favorite, and the sayings and catchphrases of everyone’s favorite Wall Street serial killer deployed in unironic fashion and received with fraternity style high fives. Guinevere Turner reports with dismay that she is approached by men who tell her with pride, “I am Patrick Bateman.” As Ellis himself noted, while the reactionary Right didn’t bother to read the book (or much of anything else), the Left was horrified by it and tried to have the publisher shut down. As always, the Left knows the Right, even the subconscious Right, better than the Right knows itself. They feared the book because Ellis had unwittingly made his satirical vehicle of “Patrick Bateman” look attractive – a wealthy white man who enjoys a life of luxury and takes home supermodels from fashionable clubs. The bad guy who is supposed to represent capitalist excess, male chauvinism, and the endless quest for social superiority somehow turns into the hero for many Americans.
But which Patrick Bateman? The Patrick Bateman of the book, is, as Turner gloats, a “dork.” His vaunted fashion sense actually isn’t very good and his take on pop culture is (deliberately) sophomoric and ill-informed. He is solidly middlebrow at best. While he enjoys certain sexual adventures, he’s actually awkward with women and at a loss for words in certain social situations, especially when in the presence of someone of higher status. His murders are products of frustration, the stereotypical “angry white man” obtaining power through violence when he can’t get it through sexual attraction or social grace.
Though the film was not intended as a radical departure from the book, there’s something about the nature of a movie that automatically makes a character (even a villain) more attractive. The movie is as much a comedy as a drama and this requires a lighter tone and a serious modification of the story. Absent from the film are Bateman’s nightmarish glimpses of a hellish New York City, where the word “FEAR” is written in blood on a random wall without anyone mentioning, and savage crimes in the streets pass unnoticed. Instead, we travel lightly from restaurant to club to high rise apartment, with nary a glimpse at some bums along the way.
As for the protagonist, some of Bateman’s crimes are so monstrous that they had to be excised altogether. Audiences are simply not going to sit through a movie star torturing a women for days and allowing rats to feed upon her sexual organs. There will be no shots of Bateman wallowing in a filthy apartment filled with rotted gore. Nor could any film audience even watch, never mind sympathize with, a man who murders a small child in a park and voyeuristically watches the reaction of his mother.
Aside from limiting his brutality, some of Bateman’s more embarrassing moments from the novel are also eliminated. In the novel, there’s a hilarious encounter with Tom Cruise that could have come from Curb Your Enthusiasm, with Bateman awkwardly praising his performance in Bartender. Later, Bateman tries to sneak into the elite restaurant Dorsia and is humiliatingly rejected. He even feels inferior to his little brother Sean Bateman, protagonist of Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction. Sean in American Psycho is portrayed as cooler than Patrick and somehow even more knowledgeable about the New York City nightlife. In The Rules of Attraction however, it’s revealed that Sean is a petty drug dealer who is possibly bisexual (though firmly closeted).
This suggests Patrick’s status anxiety is actually paranoia, meaning that he even thinks of himself as a dork. In the film, there are hints of this in some of the deleted scenes, notably two scenes of sexual rejection with Evelyn and Courtney, and another where Bateman awkwardly approaches a black man with dreadlocks and cries “Hey Rastaman!” before being left hanging for a high five. He then attempts a recovery with a comment of “We be jammin’,” before fleeing up the stairs. However, none of this appears in the finished product.
Instead, despite Christian Bale’s best efforts, the Patrick Bateman of the film represents a higher being, if only superficially. Just as Ayn Rand based some of her own capitalist Übermenschen on the serial killer William Hickman, the movie can’t help but make the killer Patrick Bateman somehow appear superior to those he preys upon. There’s even the bald pronouncement of him being beyond good and evil. He notes near the end of the film, “There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed.”
The now iconic introduction establishes him as someone who cares too much about what he looks like, but who has an admirable dedication to aesthetics without becoming effeminate. He’s a villain with a “balanced diet,” a “vigorous exercise program,” and an expansive wardrobe of expensive suits. Even though we are supposed to despise or laugh at him, he can’t help but be a favorable contrast to the Lumpenproletariat wandering through America’s Walmarts or the epicene weaklings prancing across the television like Capitol residents from The Hunger Games. Perhaps Bale is simply cast wrong – he doesn’t carry himself like a dork, but like a Master of the Universe straight out of Wolfe.
More importantly, during most of the film we are laughing with Patrick Bateman, not at him. Instead, of the humiliating episode at Dorsia, we see a bemused Patrick taking his mistress Courtney to an inferior restaurant, calmly telling her it is Dorsia, and ordering for her. His drug addicted mistress falls asleep at her seat as Bateman smiles benevolently at his sexy but pitiable comare. One can’t help but laugh at Patrick’s blunt assessment of Luis to Courtney. “Pumpkin, you’re dating an asshole.” Courtney nods, drugged up. “Pumpkin, you’re dating the biggest dickweed in New York. Pumpkin, you’re dating a tumbling, tumbling dickweed,” he proclaims while watching a porno. Courtney can only respond, “Patrick, stop calling me pumpkin.”
Bateman and Timothy Bryce, in his estimation “the only interesting person I know,” easily toy with the women they meet at nightclubs, semi-convincing them that one of their co-workers is downstairs preparing to sign a peace treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev at a New York City nightclub. A girl rebuts him seriously. “Caron’s right,” says Bryce. “Gorbachev’s not downstairs. He’s at Tunnel.” Girls operate within the frame that Patrick Bateman and his colleagues set for them. “Ask me a question,” he’ll casually command a model, and she’ll comply. Rather than serving as the most dangerous plaything, women are disposable and predictable toys, and Bateman despises them for it.
The Patrick Bateman of the novel is more overtly racist than Mary Harron’s version. Ellis’s Bateman makes sure to invest in companies that are doing business in apartheid South Africa. Throughout the book, he habitually refers to blacks as “niggers.” The only direct reference we have that the film’s Bateman may harbor racially impure thoughts is when he is being grilled by a detective investigating Paul Allen’s disappearance. Bateman actually murdered Paul Allen while playing “Huey Lewis and the News,” but tells the detective he never heard them before. “Huey’s too black sounding for me,” he intones.
Instead of displaying overt racism, Patrick Bateman is a master of mouthing the required platitudes that passed for deep thinking even in Reagan’s America. In the very first scene, Bateman chides a fellow WASP who wisecracks about a co-worker’s Jewish heritage, as we all know Wall Street suffers from the tragic underrepresentation of talented Jewish Americans. Bryce hails Bateman as the “voice of reason, the boy next door.” Later he attends dinner with Bryce, Evelyn, Courtney, the doofus Luis Carruthers, and two Soho “artists” named “Stash” and “Vanden.” In the midst of an insipid conversation about the neighborhood becoming “commercialized,” Bryce (troll grin firmly plastered and shooting a quick look at Bateman to make sure he’s appreciating it) baits the table by grilling Vanden about the “Massacres in Sri Lanka, about how the Sikhs are like killing tons of Israelis over there.” Bateman checks Bryce’s move for moral superiority by saying there are more important things than Sri Lanka. “Like what?” Well,
We have to end apartheid for one. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger. We have to provide food and shelter for the homeless, and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights, while also promoting equal rights for women. We have to encourage a return to traditional moral values. Most importantly, we have to promote general social concern and less materialism.
Bryce laughs. The girls look contemplative, and Luis says, “Patrick, how thought-provoking.” Bateman nods sagely.
The point here is that this is nonsense. It’s simply a collection of platitudes. However, by reciting them, Bateman proves his moral virtue. Secretly of course, he also proves that (Bryce excepted) he’s speaking with morons. When Bateman is forced to quickly think of the last time he hung out with Paul Allen, he invents what (to his mind) is a plausible excuse. “We went to see a new musical . . . Oh Africa, brave Africa.” No more absurd than “Waka Waka (This time for Africa).” Of course, Bateman’s unguarded next comment shows his true thoughts – “It was a laugh riot.”
The problem is Bateman never really disputes any of these moral claims, though he knows it’s tripe. There is not even a Gordon Gekko style “greed is good” pronouncement.
Instead, as with public codes of morality, Bateman and his colleagues have outsourced their social lives to the counter-culture that despises them. Indeed, the New York City club scene is a more important setting for the film than Wall Street. The so-called Masters of the Universe casually surrender to the cultural dictates of eccentric degenerates by patronizing their establishments. After dropping $570 (“not bad”) at the first restaurant we see them in, Bateman and his colleagues (not really friends) go to a club and pay $50 to a black cross-dresser/bouncer to be let in. They stride in the club eagerly. We get the spectacle of Bryce dancing absurdly with some random girl while surrounded by people dressed in diapers or looking like Boy George.
Michael Musto of The Village Voice brags in the extra features that one of the great memories of the ’80s was watching yuppies enter the clubs dominated by drag queens and various “club kids” and then ripping them apart, presumably by being catty. Mike Ryan, a former MTV producer, notes that the 1980s was the last time you could tell if someone was “cool” by the way they dress. Showing up to these places in suits and expensive haircuts isn’t a show of status, it’s a recognition that this disgusting freak show has gained cultural leadership. It’s why Lady Gaga today has more political influence than any White Nationalist.
Bateman and his colleagues spit venom at “faggots” throughout the film, using it as a casual slur. When Luis Curruthers reveals that he actually is a homosexual who wants to be with Bateman, Bateman is so disgusted that he washes his hands (with his gloves on) and can’t even kill him because he’s too repulsed to touch him. In contrast, Bateman and his pack constantly look out for “hardbodies” and pronounce that “there are no girls with good personalities!” (high five!).
Nonetheless, they concede that people they inherently despise, the type of limp-wristed “club kids” who grow up to be Michael Musto and James St. James, should have command over matters of fashion, taste, and morality. One of the commentators bemoans that the 1980s were the last time when the artistic counter-culture had not been fully co-opted and commodified by the Establishment. This has it backwards. The correct way to view this is not that the hated “yuppies” will be owning the benevolent and idealistic club kids but that club kids will have become the Establishment. Is there anything more stereotypically corporate today than MTV?
While Patrick Bateman is fit, attractive, wealthy, and has prospects, he’s also in a culture that makes stable relationships impossible. While there seems to be a certain camaraderie with Bryce, his colleagues can’t really be called “friends.” He constantly mistakes co-workers for the wrong people, and people are constantly misidentifying him. It’s this which leads to the ambiguity of the story, that perhaps he did actually kill Paul Allen but the inability of others to recognize anyone else keeps providing Bateman with alibis or perpetuates the belief that Allen is still alive.
Bryce also sees the utter corruption and superficiality of the world he wallows in. In a deleted scene, Bryce is looking with horror at the club he’s giving his time and money. He tells Patrick he is leaving, and Patrick doesn’t understand. Suddenly, Bryce screams “goodbye fuckheads!,” leaps into the crowd from a balcony and runs off. While McDermott finds this amusing, Patrick seems disturbed, as if he understands why Bryce did it, before hiding it with a smile when he notices others are looking at him. Bryce reappears later, having quit drinking, but once again plugged into the lifestyle. As the last words of the novel read, THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.
The crisis of Patrick Bateman is, at least partially, a crisis of masculinity. Post feminism, women are either competitors in the rat race or, in Bateman’s world, disposable sex toys. The 1980s were the first decade post “women’s lib” that would eventually lead to the world of I Am Charlotte Simmons. While in public, Bateman treats women the exact way that feminism demands they be treated, paying rhetorical tribute to their ideas, but knowing they are “equal,” and therefore fellow replaceable cogs in the deracinated global marketplace. Thus the women of the film (other than hookers who exist to be killed) are as shallow as the men, in fact worse. In the deleted scene when Evelyn refuses to orally pleasure her “fiancé,” it’s because she’s watching the shopping channel. The “wedding planning” doesn’t consist of thinking about friends or family or writing their own vows, but what kinds of chocolates they will serve and getting Annie Leibowitz (lesbian lover of “the white race is the cancer of history” Susan Sontag) as the photographer.
When she’s on the brink of Patrick dumping her, Evelyn originally doesn’t understand the situation because she’s gawking at a friend’s new watch. It’s not surprising that Patrick breaks up with her with the words, “You’re not terribly important to me.” When he arranges a ménage à trois with two prostitutes, he videotapes it and spends most of the time staring at himself in the mirror, getting off from his power over the women. They are not even human to him. Other than pity, why should he pretend they are? Indeed, it’s not like he cares about his male companions, who are similarly disposable.
Patrick’s mistress Courtney is wealthy and stylish but spends her days in a drugged-up haze. The only thing that makes her pop out of it, if only for a moment, is when Bateman offers to take her to Dorsia. On the way she stares out the window wistfully (and on the brink of narcotics induced unconsciousness), mumbling that she “just wants a child . . . just two perfect children.” Whether this is simply another piece to complete a lifestyle or fashion package or a moment of clarity that reveals a hunger for a different life is unclear. In one heart-breaking scene, Courtney stops Patrick before he walks out, asking if they can talk. Bateman responds, “You look . . . marvelous. There’s nothing to say. You’re going to marry Luis.” She stops him again, on the brink of telling him something important (perhaps that she loves him, or hates him, or doesn’t want to marry Luis). Instead, she simply says, “If I don’t see you before Easter, have a nice one.” Even the people we have our romances and affairs with are strangers.
What is left in place of human relationships is competition for status. The drive for differentiation and hierarchy is a natural and healthy element of any human society. However, in the world of Patrick Bateman, the way to show status is to obtain reservations at exclusive restaurants and attend various nightclubs. There is no authentic drive for excellence. Even wealth isn’t particularly astonishing, because everyone has it. As Evelyn complains in a deleted scene, “Everyone’s rich . . . everyone’s good looking . . . everyone has a great body now.” Since the major fields of endeavor such as knowledge, military conquest, patriotic service, or artistic achievement have become passé, what is left is business cards.
Despite having the world at their feet, all anyone can think to do is lots of cocaine and get drunk surrounded by scum. There’s nothing to strive for. The tension in Patrick Bateman’s face is extraordinary when he stresses to Evelyn that the reason he keeps his hated job is “because I want to fit in.” He’s annoyed by the cutesy small talk he’s forced to indulge in at parties, but forces a smile on his face because he has to. One can’t help but think he’s dimly aware another world is possible, but he doesn’t dwell on it.
Bateman does show a certain loathing for bums and the unattractive. He stabs a black homeless man to death, after commanding him to “get a job” and complaining that he “smells like shit.” After initially offering to help, he’s overcome by disgust and mutters he doesn’t have “anything in common” with him. He also stamps the bum’s dog to death. (It should be noted that almost without exception those watching the film with me have asked, “But why did he kill the dog?”) He instructs his secretary Jean to only wear skirts and high heels. He knows that the city outside his rarefied world is ugly, but prefers to ignore it.
Occasionally, Bateman knows he is simply outmatched in social status. His great nemesis is Paul Allen, masterfully played as an insufferably fratty douchebag by Jared Leto. Allen constantly reminds others of his clout (“I’ve got an 8:30 rez at Dorsia. Great sea urchin ceviche.”) and Bateman is panic-stricken because he has a better apartment, a tanning bed at home, and worst of all, a better business card. Significantly, Bateman notices Allen talking to Courtney at a Christmas party. Allen also shares the characteristic of confusing his coworkers for each other, and thinks Patrick is actually Marcus Halberstam.
Patrick exploits this to murder Allen. Before he does this though, he subtly attacks Allen’s status, taking him to dinner at an inferior restaurant, Texarkana (“I see they’ve omitted the pork loin with lime jello.”) After getting him drunk, Bateman tells him, “I like to dissect girls. Did you know I’m utterly insane?” Allen doesn’t notice. Bateman gets him back to the apartment where he gives a passionate defense of the music of Huey Lewis. Then he puts on a raincoat, puts on “Hip to be square,” and splits Allen’s head apart with an ax.
If we are in a world where real culture is removed but we must still fight for social status, in the fight of all against all, deracinated individual versus deracinated individual, why not just kill the person above you? Bateman is simply skipping the sublimated (and dishonest) combat of status competition for the more traditional (and arguably honorable) “ax to the face.” Even as he does it, Bateman recognizes the emptiness of the entire enterprise and superficial nature of Paul Allen’s superiority. “Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now, you fucking stupid bastard!” Having killed the competition, Bateman indulges in the stereotypical male action of social triumph, smoking a cigar. He drags the body out and is caught by Luis, but Luis only notices the fine make of Bateman’s “overnight bag” (Jean Paul Gaultier).
Though he despises the poor, women, homosexuals, the ugly, and innumerable others, he also despises the class to which he belongs and the shallowness they manifest. In the side rooms of Paul Allen’s apartment where he has stored corpses, he has painted on the wall in blood “DIE YUPPIE SCUM.” He is capable of only two real emotions, “greed and disgust.” The aggression is aimless, a manifestation of fury against the society as a whole.
Bateman does pull back from the brink on one occasion, with his secretary, Jean. In the book, Bateman notes that Jean is in love with him and he concedes that he will “probably marry her someday.” Significantly, he cries out once in the book, “I just want to be loved.” Jean is the one person throughout the entire film who unreservedly loves him. Love means being open to being hurt, an implicit self-abnegation of status, all but impossible to do while trying to prove one’s importance and invisibility.
While filling out a crossword puzzle (each answer being either MEAT or BONE), Bateman asks her to his apartment and then to dinner. While engaging in pleasant conversation, he serves her sorbet from the same freezer where he keeps a woman’s head. He prepares to shoot Jean with a nail gun when Evelyn calls, and her message (which clearly shows they are still going out) plays loudly in the apartment. He lowers the gun. Not noticing the gun, Jean asks if Evelyn and Patrick are still going out and then reproaches herself because “I have no right to ask that question.” She is willing to be with Patrick in any way, even as a mistress, even as a shameful secret. Her very vulnerability and genuineness affects him. She only hesitantly departs when Patrick sadly asks her to go. He tells her that if she doesn’t, “I’m afraid I might hurt you,” the only time he expresses some kind of authentic care for another person.
While Jean obviously doesn’t understand the literal meaning of what he is saying, she leaves. At the end of the film, Bateman calls her in the midst of a nervous breakdown and when Jean expresses concern, he screams, “Stop sounding so fucking sad! Jesus!” When she finds his day planner, filled with graphic images of the torture and abuse of women, she doesn’t react by throwing it away in horror. Instead, she slowly reads the whole thing, and weeps. There is a terrible sadness, not anger. Indeed, there might even be pity for Patrick, even though she now knows he is a monster. It should be noted that in promotional materials Ellis approved (which can be considered “canonical”), it’s revealed that Jean actually does marry Bateman in the end (although once acclimated to a life of luxury, she divorces him and demands money). Disengaged from the city and its cultural poisons, Jean and Patrick could perhaps find real love, and even happiness, but that is irreconcilable with high status and the need to “fit in.”
Is any of the violence even happening? Aside from an ATM telling Patrick to “Feed Me a Stray Cat” there’s never direct proof that Bateman is just imagining it all. In the book, we see Cheerios interviewed on television talk shows, Patrick’s muscles ripping through dress shirts, and benches following people home. (I hate it when that happens to me.) All of that is absent here. However, there’s an obviously implausible sequence where he takes out an entire police squad with just a handgun and then stares at the pistol in disbelief as explosions rip upward into the night.
After his killing spree, Patrick returns to Paul Allen’s apartment where he has stored several bodies. He wears a surgical mask to protect against the odor. He finds it painted clean and white, with no trace of any grisly remains. A real estate agent selling the apartment mistakes him for a prospective client, but notices the surgical mask. The greedy smile of the saleswoman vanishes instantly. She recognizes something significant about the mask. Not mentioning it to Bateman, she asks if he saw the ad in the Times. When a desperate Bateman says he did, she replies, “There was no ad in the Times.” Patrick begs her to tell him what happened here.
Stepping back into shadow, the woman asks him not to make any trouble and leave. Bateman does. “Don’t come back,” she says. “I won’t,” Patrick replies. “Don’t worry.” No scene is more horrifying. Is Bateman hallucinating? Did the woman cover up the murders to get the commission? Does she know? Every answer is plausible. Every answer is terrifying. The confrontation almost drives Bateman to total collapse. The viewer may suffer similar effects. A materialist qua materialist, capitalist qua capitalist, American qua American can’t be expected to act any different from the saleswoman. Our whole culture is built on whitewashing over the blood.
Detective Donald Kimball’s (William Dafoe at his creepy best) appearance to investigate the disappearance of Paul Allen seems to support the idea that Bateman actually did commit the murder. In a deleted scene, Bateman spots the detective in a nightclub, where Kimball says that “criminals want to confess. They want to get caught!” Later however, Dafoe clears him, providing Bateman with an alibi. However, there’s something unsettling about the way he delivers the line, “To think that one of his friends killed him for no reason whatsoever would be too ridiculous. Isn’t that right Patrick?” Perhaps Dafoe’s character is simply a manifestation of Patrick’s subconsious.
Indeed, when Bateman finally confesses to his lawyer, his lawyer doesn’t even recognize him. He dismisses Bateman’s claim of murder by saying that he had dinner with Paul Allen in London. Whether Bateman did or did not get Paul Allen (or anyone else) or whether he has simply slipped into madness, he notes “my punishment continues to elude me.”
The film telegraphs its overt theme of the artificiality of capitalist culture by closing with Bryce approving of Ronald Reagan coolly lying about the Iran-Contra scandal. He smirks, “he presents himself as this harmless old codger, but inside . . . but inside.” Bateman thinks to himself, “But inside doesn’t matter.” Bateman intones in an internal monologue, “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 new knowledge about myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.”
By the 1980s, the cultural rot had taken over the West. What “counter-revolution” created by Ronald Reagan and the triumphant conservative movement that existed was quickly funneled into corporate materialism or the occasional reactionary dead end. However, even the more idealistic and attractive elements of the 1960s counter-culture (what few there were) had also burned out. The 1980s was a time of cynicism, a sneak preview of The End of History. Self-medication, tiresome degeneracy, and moneygrubbing is all that there is. While leftists may applaud the salvos against capitalism, they are even more complicit in the destruction of the organic society and the family, the severing of all cultural bonds that bind a people together, and most importantly, the deliberate promotion of ugliness, degeneracy, and corruption. The 1980s is as much their society as Ronald Reagan’s.
Bateman’s “disgust” at ugliness, cant, and even his fellow yuppies is actually one of his better characteristics. Even his “greed” is an attempt to achieve the best status he can in the culture he is a part of. Unfortunately, it can lead nowhere except another night at a worthless club high on coke talking to vacuous women. His distant awareness of this manifests in pointless rage, slaughtering those socially below him, slaughtering those socially above him, and slaughtering women that he sees as expendable (and who, in many ways, have become expendable). Good and evil exist in the world, but as we know from Columbine and other incidents, nothing happens in a vacuum. Surrounded by a combination of filth and sanctimony, Patrick Bateman can’t help but lash out helplessly (if only in his own mind).
Yet, despite Patrick Bateman’s rage and self-loathing, his antics with Bryce and his other “friends” create an attractive image to Americans who want the very materialism being parodied. Like Tony Montana, viewers identify with the “bad guy” as opposed to the even more degraded specimens who surround him.
Obviously, most viewers are missing even the intended anti-capitalist satire . . . but there is something subversive inherent in the material. Bret Easton Ellis is perhaps one of the most biting trolls of Twitter, poking fun at the new taboos of the internet age. When Dan Savage received a media assist in his transformation from sexual degenerate to Civil Rights Leader (hey, it worked for Martin Luther King) and debuted his “It Gets Better” campaign, Ellis tweeted, “Can we get a reality check here? It gets worse.” He also called Glee “a puddle of HIV.” The howls of prissy hysteria from the white knights of cyberspace read like Bateman’s exposition on morality to Stash and Vanden. Though he’s hardly a Traditionalist, Ellis at least sees that the urgent moral imperatives of our time are so much tripe. Like Ellis’s characters in The Rules of Attraction, Americans frantically drug, drink, rut, and amuse themselves away from the nothingness of American life and the bankruptcy of its moral code.
Ellis noted that when he was writing the book, it was as if being possessed by a dark spirit. That specter still haunts the continent. Objectively speaking, crime is down, violence as a whole is declining worldwide, and despite the struggling economy, we still live in a country where one of the most serious problems is people can’t stop eating all the food that’s available. Yet we are bound with invisible chains regulating every aspect of our behavior, envious of the human debris at the top of our social pyramid, outraged at the bestial creatures that have ravaged our major cities (and our budget), and disgusted at what passes for a culture.
There’s a dark passenger separated from compassion, empathy, and love within many Americans, breaking free in outbreaks of nihilistic horror. The country has become ugly – spiritually, morally, even physically – and while everyone disagrees on the cause, the undercurrent of fury in American life seems to be a constant. Millions sense it, even if they don’t know what it means. As Patrick Bateman says, “Something horrible is happening inside me, and I don’t know why.” When you build a country upon a lie, a state without a real nation, people, or culture, then “greed and disgust” is all that remains.
Patrick Bateman has a dark appeal because we understand this disgust with what the country has become. We share his shameful greed for the luxuries that secretly appeal to us. We sympathize with his anger and we can’t help but admire his style, even as we despise ourselves for it. While thrown into a ruthless world of all against all, we are expected to respect social conventions and egalitarian cant. We are told to avoid physical aggression even though the social conflict and personal destruction is as real as any medieval battlefield. The serial killer dressed in Valentino suits literally cutting through the hypocrisy and pretense of the corporate caste system with axe and chainsaw at least openly displays what he is.
In Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, he notes that those possessing strong “megalothymia,” the desire for recognition of superiority and greatness, can only channel it into commercial enterprises in our Brave New World. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger’s comment on academia, the competition for status in our society is so fierce precisely because the stakes are so small. Of course, even though Bateman supposedly exemplifies the “yuppie,” we don’t see him chasing the dollar. We don’t actually see him doing much of anything at the office, except making reservations at restaurants, watching talk shows, and filling out crossword puzzles in disturbing ways.
American Psycho shows that Fukuyama didn’t go far enough. Rather than valuing purely commercial enterprises, or even status, it’s the status symbols that are valued most. While Bateman is angry that Paul Allen has “the Fisher account” (though we are never informed what that means or why we should care), he’s far angrier about tanning beds and reservations at Dorsia.
Ellis noted in an interview that the reason he spends so much time in the book discussing clothes is because hair styles, the cut of suits, and the variety of glasses are the only ways the characters have to tell people apart. Of course, seeing as the men at Bateman’s workplace of Pierce & Pierce all share similar tastes, even this doesn’t really work. The pursuit of status devoid of significance leads to a collection of interchangeable, replaceable men who can instantly tell the cut of a suit but can’t say for sure if one of them has been killed or not.
The result is a perverse parody of the Männerbund. Baron Evola called for a modern warrior band to become “bearers of a complete and legitimate authority” that could create a “virile substance in the form of a political elite around which a new crystallization will occur,” leading to rebirth of the nation. Instead, we’re going to hit up the nightclubs and define our masculinity against the “faggots” by the ability to “get a rez.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the song playing at the first club Bateman and the boys hit is “True Faith” by the band New Order.
The new order of modernity strips the legitimate, honorable ways that men traditionally used to compete for status. As Jack Donovan outlines in The Way of Men, the result is that First World males are often frustrated, feeling almost redundant in a world that no longer values them. This only contributes to Bateman’s self-loathing, which expresses himself in bloodlust. “I feel lethal,” he says. “On the verge of frenzy.” The lack of any authentic outlet for righteous violence or masculine self-expression echoes in our culture today, as boys and young men burrow in their man caves taking out their aggression in video games, violent movies, or pornography. As Patrick Bateman always says, “I have to return some videotapes.” What is surprising is not that young males lash out in mass killings against the society that despises them. What’s surprising is that we don’t see this every day.
What is important about Patrick Bateman is not whether he is actually a killer, but that his homicidal desires are the only authentic thing in the entire world around him – except for the possible exception of Jean. Bateman says of himself that “there is no real me; only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable . . . I simply am not there. “And yet, in another way, through his bloodlust, Patrick Bateman may be the only real person in the entire film, with everyone else trapped within the network of nightclubs and restaurants and not even seeing the blood that has been painted over. How are we to know that any of the others even exist – they can’t even recognize each other.
The noxious Amy Taubin argued that the 1980s really begin with the death of John Lennon, the 60s idealist who promised us a world with “nothing to kill or die for.” She got it wrong, because we live in the world of “Imagine.” That nihilistic and nightmarish world has come true, as we fritter away our days with iPhones and Modern Family. But that doesn’t mean we won’t kill or die anyway. It just won’t mean anything.