"American Psycho" could be called a personality sketch of a serial killer, but Patrick Bateman doesn't have a personality. His entire existence is a facade.
"There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman," he says in a chillingly apathetic voice over, "But there is no me. I simply am not there."
What is there in this icy, incisive adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' controversial and bloody psychological thriller -- published in the wake of the Reagan-Bush era -- is an extremely black satire of 1980s aggressiveness and indulgence with a succulently twisted wit.
You see, Patrick Bateman (viscereally embodied by the hitherto under-appreciated Christian Bale) is a handsome, cocksure and completely hollow 27-year-old Wall Street comer, so consumed by his material world of one-upsmanship that comparing business cards with his office mates is tantamount to measuring the members of their male anatomy.
By day he's an empty Armani suit with a manicure who sexually harasses his secretary (Oscar nominee Chloe Sevigny), complains about upscale accommodations ("They don't have a good bathroom to do coke in," he sniffs) in restaurants that serve ridiculously supercilious cuisine (squid ravioli?!?) and cheats on his fur-wrapped fiancée (Reese Witherspoon in an Ivana do) with her best friend (Samantha Mathis), a miserable former debutante with a heavy addiction to prescription drugs.
By night, he meticulously murders hookers and house guests in his Upper East Side condo while mockingly pontificating about the deeper meanings of Huey Lewis and Phil Collins songs that blast through his top-of-the-line stereo to stifle the screams.
I told you it was dark.
Written and directed by Mary Harron ("I Shot Andy Warhol"), "American Psycho" paints an eerily detached portrait of soullessness with a captivating intensity, deliberately sterile and vacant staging, and a winkingly acidic performance of barely bridled insanity by Bale ("Metroland," "Velvet Goldmine") -- who does a sublime job of creating an utterly empty yet charismatic character.
After fighting like hell to get this picture made the way she wanted (Leonardo DiCaprio's early interest in the project saw the studio take it away from her to be refashioned for a superstar), Harron's vivid vision comes through clearly enough in the ominous atmosphere that hangs over the film. The fact that most of the murders take place off screen actually makes the movie scarier.
But while it is engrossing moment-by-moment and Bale is fascinating to watch as he toys with Patrick Bateman's inner demons, this "Psycho" is ultimately unsatisfying -- like eating a gourmet meal and still feeling hungry afterwards.
Beyond its entertainingly demented ridicule of '80s excess it has little to say other than, "isn't this guy a interesting sicko?"
Indeed he is. My favorite Patrick Bateman character trait is the precision game he plays of publicly exposing his homicidal tendencies in abstruse ways, just to see if anyone will notice. (Subduing a self-satisfied smirk, he tells a girl at a loud night club that he's into "murders and executions," knowing in the din of dance music she'll think he said "mergers and acquisitions.")
But as it nears a conclusion, the picture becomes almost as empty as the title character, veering well off course in the last reel (Exploding cop cars? Please!) before reaching a dangling non-ending.
Thanks mostly to Bale's performance of brilliantly ironic madness, "American Psycho" remains a potent, perceptive piece of backhanded Americana, in mood somewhere between "American Beauty" and "Fight Club." (In inspiration, it owes something to the cults of Gordon Gecko and Hannibal Lechter.) But in implementation, it's very clearly a lesser film than both those titles, memorable in part for its unfulfilled promise of something more substantive.