(Published on ARTSCLASH)
Last week in our showcase of the greatest films by female directors we were in the riotous feminist territory of Daisies, an arthouse oddity that fun as it is probably isn’t given the many male directors of thrillers any lost sleep. Today’s film, however, is a very different beast. A beast with immaculate skin and a rather fetching raincoat.
American Psycho, Mary Harron’s second film, is far more complex in its politics than Daisies. Like the book from which it is based, the film is brutal in its violence towards women (although a particularly gruesome passage in which a girl is nailed to the floor is perhaps thankfully absent from the film retelling). In fact, it’s brutal in its violence towards EVERYONE. As soon as Jared Leto is seen to with an axe (which, good actor though he is, we have all harboured a secret fantasy to see happen), the film is peppered with violence. In the same way pepper soup could be said to be peppered. Heads are left in fridges, and there’s more cutting than a scrapbook convention.
What saves it from being just Hostel but with big ’80s phones is the streak of satire running through it. Thought that The Wolf on Wall Street was noticeably absent when it came to satire of the financial district? That’s because American Psycho had used it all up. Killings are juxtaposed with the music of Phil Collins. Jared Leto is killed ultimately because he has a nicer business card than Christian Bale (or as cosmic punishment for 30 Seconds To Mars. Probably). The problems of societies of men without women are shown at their ultimate extension, with Bale’s character Patrick Bateman treating women as objects to be used up and left hanging around like objects, in fridges or hanging up in closets. In this way Harron’s influence on the film can be said to be similar as Bret Easton Ellis’ as a gay man writing the book American Psycho. As outsiders to this masculinist society, they can offer the scorching critique Scorsese couldn’t quite manage.
However, this film also has a rare flaw: the acting is too good. To truly play psychopath an actor has to work with utter charisma, and Bale does this so well that the whole film you are desperately trying not to like the character. This may be the point, but it does serve to cover over just how horrific the actions portrayed really are. This could simply be a ratings issue, with the film not able to go into the gore like the book, but seems to me a stylistic problem. To truly portray the world of Bateman, the film has to present itself as made of shiny surfaces. And there’s an inherent problem with shiny surfaces, they may reflect ourselves back to us, but they can also obscure that which they are covering.
Although this is somehow improved by the ambiguous ending, Harron really had an impossible task in making this film. In making an extreme feminist satire of men without women, she had to show violence towards women. But the problem with that is that if you miss the satire you’re just seeing violence against women. It’s a bold attempt, however, and if one considers what other directors could have done with the source material you have to be thankful for her input.