As the media continues to praise Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning performance in “Joker” (2019), I could not help but think back to Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” (2000). The film is an intentionally uncomfortable viewing experience and, as a result, many people remember it for its excessive goriness and ambiguous resolution. Quite honestly, I do not love the film for those reasons. That said, we cannot overlook Christian Bale’s outstanding performance and the film’s satirical commentary about the extravagance and absurdity of Wall Street culture in the 1980s.
“American Psycho” centers around Patrick Bateman, a 27-year-old investment banker obsessed with his self-image. Every morning, he follows a borderline-maniacal routine of exercising and applying several moisturizing lotions to maintain a near-perfect physique. On the surface, he may seem like your average Wall Street executive, but the film quickly puts that idea to rest. He is seen with what looks like bloody sheets at a dry cleaner, he frequently makes aggressive, misogynistic comments toward his secretary and other women and he even mentions to the audience that he feels as if his “mask of sanity is about to slip.”
From there, it almost goes without saying that his mask does slip, as he transforms into a serial killer before our eyes. In a chilling fashion, Bateman murders his colleague using an axe, all the while giving his victim an articulate summary of the song blaring through his speakers in the background, “Hip to Be Square” (1986) by Huey Lewis and the News. In his other murders, Bateman goes through a similar music-explaining procedure that adds another off-putting element to the already horrific event on screen. While it may not be enjoyable to watch, Christian Bale’s portrayal of the sadistic character is phenomenal to say the least.
As a viewer, it is hard to look past Bateman’s psychopathic behavior, but the time he spends with his peers is actually quite thought-provoking. His colleagues are similarly materialistic, self-obsessed and sexist in a way that is quite appalling. They never seem to be working; in fact, they only seem to worry about whether they have the fanciest business card and if they have dinner reservations at the finest restaurant in the city. On top of it all, they never pay attention to the fairly clear warning signs of Bateman’s erratic behavior. And therein lies a more powerful message about the society in which he operates: everyone is self-consumed to the point where they do not even notice their colleague’s glaring psychological issues, which suggests that they, like Bateman, are insane in their own way.
As mentioned previously, “American Psycho” is by no means a flawless film, but it is hard to deny that it is relevant today. “Joker” offers a somewhat similar outlook on insanity, as both films juxtapose a psychopathic murderer as its unreliable narrator with a conformist society to suggest that psychological issues are even more complex than they may seem.