The definitive screening of 2000’s American Psycho, Mary Harron’s adaptation of the novel about a serially murdering investment banker, happened on the roof of my friend Tommy’s apartment building in the summer of 2009. It was not my first viewing, but that night I felt as though I was watching the film as it was meant to be seen: illegally downloaded from the internet and then projected, using equipment Tommy’s neighbor “borrowed” from work, on a brick wall we had painted white for the occasion. When I remember the movie, I am always on that roof.
I did not see American Psycho in theaters, because I do not care for horror films. At this point, many readers are spitting coffee onto their tote bags in their rush to say, “American Psycho isn’t horror; it’s satire” aloud to their empty apartments. My work here is to remind these readers that in the year 2000, that’s exactly the problem Harron needed to solve.
When the novel American Psycho was published in 1991, the question of whether it was satire provoked great controversy. Ellis’ book describes the sexualized murders of women in numbing detail that, the author insisted, wryly mocked the superficiality of the 1980s. Many women disagreed. The Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization of Women, for example, argued that these exhaustive scenes were in fact psychosexual torture as entertainment, not critique. The problem inherent to this kind of dispute can be seen in an explanation Ellis gave The New York Times in 1991. “I wrote a book that is all surface action: no narrative, no characters to latch onto, flat, endlessly repetitive,” he said. “I used comedy to get at the absolute banality of the violence of a perverse decade. Look, it’s a very annoying book. But that is how as a writer I took in those years.”
You can understand how this argument might depend on reader interpretation. Four hundred pages of women (and some men) getting their tongues cut out, getting their limbs nailed to floors, and having their skin sliced with surgical implements, presented without commentary or added depth, could be misread as actual violent misogyny rather than an indictment of it. Harron won control of the American Psycho film project by heading off this interpretation. In an interview shortly before the film’s U.S. release, she discussed the fraught process of bringing Ellis’ book to the screen, in which at least three other scripts were written before hers. “I think [my] script—not to blow my own trumpet —was the first one that really worked,” she said, “because it did more of a satire than a violent horror movie.”
I like the word “did” in that quote, because it reminds us that the now-prevailing understanding of American Psycho as satire emerged in response to specific choices Harron and her collaborators made. It’s not as though people suddenly discovered the right way to look at the source material. Harron framed it. The film shows us that Patrick’s life is horrifyingly empty, by devoting substantial screen time to habits that are not central to the plot but shape the way we interpret him as a character.
Four habits convey his emptiness: He follows an elaborate regimen of personal care, he routinely watches pornography, he is obsessed with foodie culture, and he ascribes profound meaning to pop music. All of these characteristics effectively warn us that Patrick is not, in fact, a cool guy. He suffers from a terrifying lack of interiority, and his killing is not an expression of some hip, rebel persona but rather a symptom of his despair.
This interpretation of American Psycho felt right in 2009, sitting on that roof and watching a 10-foot Christian Bale peel a mud mask off his dead pan. Our literal distance above the city reflected the figurative distance necessary for the story to function as satire. In order to experience American Psycho as critique rather than fantasy, the viewer must recognize that Patrick Bateman’s world is not our own, and that he is not living the dream so much as trying to thrash his way out of a nightmare from which he cannot awake. The problem is that in the two decades since Harron’s film was released—and even in the 10 years since I fell in love with it on Tommy’s roof—the devices she uses to warn us that Patrick Bateman is trapped in an empty life have become recognizable habits of modern living.
Consider how much we care about food now. American Psycho begins in a pastel-colored restaurant where a series of waiters describe the night’s specials, each delivering the same affected monologue to a different table. Performing their roles as waiters, they are empty the way Patrick is empty. As the film progresses, the protagonist’s quest for tables at trendy restaurants becomes synecdoche for vain pursuits. Patrick spends a lot of time trying to get reservations at the fictional Dorsia, a comically exclusive place he never gets to enter. Before he kills his colleague Paul Allen (Jared Leto), on the other hand, Patrick takes him to a Mexican restaurant that is utterly dead. These are the two ends of Patrick’s value system: the gourmet enclave he is dying to be seen in and the unfashionable dive where he can prep his victim in anonymity. The contrast is supposed to highlight his emptiness by showing that he assigns enormous value to something decent people find trivial.
That consensus has disintegrated in the last two decades. In 2019, foodie culture is arguably the most active culture in New York City, if not the only one. Music venues, off-Broadway theaters, bookstores and independent cinemas have steadily vanished under Manhattan’s relentless rent pressure, but restaurants remain intact. Since American Psycho was released, urban America cares more about food and less about everything else, making Patrick look less like a glutton desperate for visceral sensation than a man ahead of his time.
He is also something of a visionary in his consumption of pornography. I myself have never watched porn, of course, but I’m told it’s popular now. So, too, are the obsessive beauty and workout routines that once symbolized Patrick’s superficiality. In 2000, seeing him doing crunches on his floor while two women pleasured each other on his living room TV was a jarring reminder that there was something wrong with him. Today, the presence of pornography means little, in film or in real life. If we see it in the background of a scene, it often just indicates that the character is alone. It’s still weird that Patrick is watching it while he’s working out, but the important thing is that he’s practicing self-care—a lesson he has taken from his study of Whitney Houston.
The symptom of Patrick’s emptiness that seems most prescient—and the one that shapes the most scenes—is his insistence on taking pop music seriously. In what is perhaps the best-known sequence of the film, he praises the Huey Lewis and the News album Sports while preparing to kill Paul Allen in his apartment. Admitting that their previous work was too “new wave” for him, Patrick describes Sports as the album where they “really came into their own, commercially and artistically.” As he buttons up his murder raincoat, he adds that “the whole album has a clear, crisp sound and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost.”
This scene suffers from temporal dislocation more than any other. Patrick is speaking the language of music critics, but in the year 2000, fewer critics wrote about pop that way, and more disdained it. Patrick’s application of high rhetoric to an album turn-of-the-century audiences held in contempt is another sign of his failure to simulate normalcy; he knows people like Huey Lewis, but he fails to understand that they don’t find meaning in it, because he finds meaning in nothing. Two decades later, however, his ascription of deep significance to pop hits is closer to critical consensus. His friend Elizabeth laughs at him when he says that “The Greatest Love of All” is “one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation, dignity”—and the audience is meant to laugh with her—but the only reason this claim would be out of place on Twitter is that it’s too long.
The further we get from American Psycho’s release, the closer we get to the world it depicted. The satire becomes more pointed, but instead of being a fun indictment of the ‘80s, it becomes an unsettling reflection of the way we live now. I would never argue that any behaviors the modern viewer might share with Patrick Bateman are wrong, of course. Society still frowns on murder and investment banking, but pop music and careful eating and masturbating to footage of other people having sex are widely accepted. The modern world is probably better for ceasing to look down on these activities. It makes the movie disturbing in a different way, though, so that the anachronism lies less in its period details and more in its expectation that we will pass judgment on them.
That element of judgment—the one that concerns itself with individual moral hygiene rather than social and political power, the judgment not of actions but of souls—has faded from contemporary culture. Good riddance, probably. Yet even as we revel in its absence, we miss it, the way Patrick longs for punishment by the end of the film. Nobody punishes him, though. The most frightening discovery for Patrick—the only thing that really scares him—is his realization that, in terms of the moral universe, he is alone with himself. So are we. Perhaps the scariest thing about living a Patrick Bateman lifestyle now is the suspicion that it doesn’t matter, and we won’t be punished for it.
The disturbing thing about watching American Psycho in 2019 is that we do not recognize the same emptiness in Patrick’s behavior that we saw two decades ago. Maybe that’s because we pay less attention to the way our neighbors cultivate their gardens, as Henry James put it, and the idea that we should keep an eye on such things is—for pretty much the first time since motion pictures were invented—no longer a matter of consensus. Patrick Bateman is entitled to his choices, and there’s nothing wrong with acting like him now, as long as we don’t kill anybody. Ironically, Harron’s film is satire again, in that it forces us to look at ourselves the way we see others: vain, frantic, habitually doing a bunch of stuff that numbly refuses to matter. The horror is that this change is neither bad nor good. It’s just another thing that happened.