Mary Herron’s production of the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel expertly nips and tucks the 400-page novel and makes of it a neat and resonant feature film. Starring Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, Jared Leto as Paul Allen (Owen), Chloe Sevigny as secretary Jean, Samantha Mathis as Courtney, and Reese Witherspoon as Evelyn. The way in which the film renders the flatness of the novel is partly by Patrick’s monotone voiceover, as well as a successful integration of the kinds of intermittent repetition that typify the novel’s prose: reworkings of the same bogus, overdone, expensive foods at the latest restaurant, Patrick’s dull informative lectures on the discographies of Phil Collins and Whitney Houston and the emptied-out lyrics of their meaningless love ballads, and, perhaps most insistently, Patrick’s “I have to go return some videotapes.” These are interspersed with routine depictions of extreme violence (Herron often cuts from the initial stab to the aftermath, with slightly more dramatic elisions than in the novel). As Namwali Serpell points out, these repetitions do not so much build to a cathartic climax as build to more repetition.
Patrick’s splitting of the world into atomized parts, places, and strata extends to his extreme splitting apart of female bodies, but this seems only the final and most perfect realization of the American cinema’s own desire to use the male gaze to synecdochize the female body beyond recognition into a series of disjointed fetishes (think of Deleuze & Guattari’s “Faciality”). It has been suggested that the film is a feminist reworking of the novel, but I think the novel is, in a sense, already feminist, at least in the sense that its baroque excess invites no other interpretation so much as parody. We are gagging with disgust, but probably also with laughter. The novel’s famous puns (“Mostly murders and executions” is heard as “Mostly mergers and acquisitions”) remind me of Nabokov’s misheard phrases as well (Quilty: “Where the devil’d you get her?… I said the weather’s getting better”). Herron plays these to great effect in a picture of American surface and corporate culture that is just overperformed enough (Evelyn’s party, where everyone says “Xmas” instead of “Christmas”) to resonate as satire.
Her excision of certain key moments of violence is also a way of letting us feel our temptation to witness those missing reels of film – diegetically, too, since Bateman films all of his sexcapades and murders. In emptying out the film of portions of the sequences of gore, she also interrupts the suture of the horror film, and forces us to jump from one moment uncomfortably into another. Herron told Christian Bale to think of the character “not in terms of psychology, but rather as a collection of impulses and modes.” Like Foucault’s model of power, then, perhaps the best response to such horror is an art that is large and proliferative enough to respond in kind – a faceted one. She has said in an interview:
[Christian Bale and I] talked about how Martian-like Patrick Bateman was, how he was looking at the world like somebody from another planet, watching what people did and trying to work out the right way to behave. And then one day he called me and he had been watching Tom Cruise on David Letterman, and he just had this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes, and he was really taken with this energy.
(In an interesting detail, in the novel, Patrick Bateman meets Tom Cruise in the elevator one day because he lives in the same building.) The eeriest aspect of both novel and film is not that Jason Bateman is secretly another person (one who either really kills people or really fantasizes about it all the time), but that he is openly so (at least in the imagined narrative he gives us), and that no one hears or sees him. Whether he has actually killed anyone or not, his thoughts irrupt the surface of his speech often enough to disturb. One of the cleverest shots of the film is the mid-range shot of Jason in the mirror after the opening sequence (knives and food), when he is detailing his morning cleansing routine to us. He describes his face mask and tells us that he is “simply not there.” As he says this, he peels a perfectly transparent mask from his face, encapsulating the way in which surface is content in this story.
The end of the film makes it even more tempting to see the murders as imaginary, perhaps because the special effects of the taxi murder scene are so familiar from Hollywood that we are prepared to read them immediately as false. As in Psycho, the facile psychological explanation at the end of the film does not ameliorate our horror in watching Mrs. Bates’ face dance over Norman’s and realizing that he killed those girls. In a similar way, the realization that Patrick Bateman (whose name carries the “Bate” of Bates and the “man” of Norman) may not have committed the crimes he describes is not enough to erase the ghastly experience of having imagined that he did right alongside him.