Mad, bad and deadly dull to know

American Psycho (18) | Director: Mary Harron | Starring: Christian Bale, Chloe Sevigny, Willem Dafoe | 101 Mins
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The Independent Culture

Consider the life of Patrick Bateman, Manhattan yuppie, Eighties vintage. Having anointed his body each morning with costly unguents and exfoliants, he shrugs on one of his dark, expensive suits and heads down to Wall Street, where he lunches with fellow moneymakers, trades misogynist quips and compares business cards. Back in his office he listens to his Walkman or does the crossword.

At night, he dines out with his fiancée - or his equally blonde girlfriend - in restaurants that flatter his status. He has a platinum credit card and a golden money clip. He is ferried about town in a limo. One might assume Patrick has got it made, yet at no point does he seem to be enjoying himself, perhaps because he doesn't have a self to enjoy. "There is no real me, he says. I simply am not there."

What he does to fill this void is kill people, starting with a tramp and progressing to prostitutes, girlfriends, and a colleague whose apartment he covets. He then turns that apartment into his personal abattoir. Gruesome stuff, and it doesn't get any prettier.

Yet however you felt about Bret Easton Ellis's source novel - I recall being alternately bored and horrified - it soon becomes clear that the screen version of American Psycho is no slasher movie. Director Mary Harron concentrates on permeating the film's atmosphere with violence, while keeping its actual commission to a minimum; where Ellis revelled in the details of slaughter, the film is all ominous approach and grisly aftermath.

The film has another advantage over the book. Ellis's obsessive notation of designer togs and brand names was his nudge to the reader that Bateman's world is all surface, but its effect on the page was numbing. Cinema, on the other hand, positively thrives on surface, lending it burnish and glow; it's all about looking, which is where American Psycho comes into its own. Every surface here glistens, from the sleek black of a limo window to the silvery glint of a business-card holder, from the brilliantined hair of a Wall Street broker to the blade of an axe. Bateman is fanatical about keeping those surfaces absolutely pristine, whipping a coaster beneath a drink before it can touch his desk, or donning a plastic mac before he swings an axe through his victim's head - he doesn't want blood spattering his immaculate Valentino suit.

American Psycho wants us to see Bateman as emblematic of his time, his material fetishism as the sick product of a culture that has enshrined acquisitiveness and greed. Everything, including people, is a commodity to be used and discarded as he pleases. But there's a pretty obvious difference between cynically discarding someone and eviscerating them with a chainsaw. This might have worked if Harron had played it purely as black comedy, but she also wants to forge a link between the heartless consumerism of the Eighties and one man's psychopathic bloodlust. OK, Bateman is a preening narcissist, a liar and a creep, he has appalling taste in music and a near farcical lack of social grace, and is quite probably the last person in the world you'd want to room with. Still, none of these failings are of a kind to make anyone rampage through the New York night on a homicidal spree.

Indeed, murder seems almost too imaginative a pursuit for Bateman, who admits that all he really wants to do is "fit in". He's a conformist, a seeker after the bland - a warning, perhaps, that cultural sophistication is collapsing right across the board, psychopaths included. Hannibal Lecter enjoyed sketching and Bach's Goldberg Variations. Tom Ripley played the piano and did impersonations. Patrick Bateman, well, he likes Phil Collins and - oh horror! - "Lady in Red". It's a running joke of the film that people keep mishearing what Bateman says. When he tells a woman he's into "murders and executions", she repeats it as "mergers and acquisitions", either because she didn't hear him above the music or else she assumed this was Wall Street wit. Nobody, it seems, would finger Patrick Bateman as a murder suspect, because nobody can remember what he looks like. Even his own lawyer, to whom he confesses his monstrous past, fails to recognise him: Bateman is, literally, a man without qualities.

American Psycho's insistence on this erasure of identity makes Christian Bale's performance difficult to judge. Is the woodenness of his line delivery the authentic sound of a mind in freefall, or is it an actor struggling to accommodate too many moods at once? I couldn't quite decide, though the assurance of Bale's previous work (The Portrait of a Lady, Metroland) suggests he be handed the benefit of the doubt. It doesn't help that his is the only performance of any note. As Bateman's PA, Chloe Sevigny has one good scene in which she is almost seduced (and destroyed) by her boss, and thereafter is given very little to do. Willem Dafoe gets to flash his wonderfully scary teeth in the role of detective, but his one major scene is completely pointless: apparently suspecting Bateman in a murder investigation, he then takes him out to lunch and offers him an alibi.

The film will have an appeal, I think, particularly for audiences old enough to remember the Eighties. It's well made, and Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner have done a fair job in remodelling an essentially hateful novel. But even on screen, it must be said that being in the company of Patrick Bateman is no day at the beach, and that's not because he's a stone killer, either. It's because he's charmless, opaque and very, very boring.

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