The Unattainable Narrative: Identity, Consumerism and the Slasher Film in Mary Harron's American Psycho

Article excerpt

The aim of this essay is to reaffirm the significance of Mary Harron and Guinivere Turner's 2000 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's novel, American Psycho. With an intricately crafted script and a near-perfect performance by Christian Bale, Mary Harron takes an excessive and volatile novel and focuses its salient cultural criticisms. Her film borrows the horror genre's trademark self-consciousness and takes it to a new level, marrying the genre to a larger body of cultural narratives, including those of television, pop music, news media and advertising. Moreover, it takes the psychological considerations of Hitchcock's Psycho and turns them into a comparative analysis in psychosis. Using its protagonist as an analog for Hitchcock's killer, Harron has turned Bates' psychosexual confusion into an abysmal modern equivalent: a man whose consumer lust is transformed into blood lust. The resultant considerations of identity cooperate with the film's metacinematic inclinations to form a study of what makes its psycho distinctly American. When put together, these questions are turned into a powerful condemnation of consumption, both of products and of cultural narratives.


Based on the 1991 novel, the film is concerned with the life of Patrick Bateman/Christian Bale, a handsome, fit and incredibly wealthy white male working on Wall Street in the 1980s. He lives in a decadent apartment in Manhattan and is engaged to a successful and equally glamorous woman named Evelyn/Reese Witherspoon. When he isn't at work at Pierce and Pierce or spending his abundant leisure time amid his league of absurdly wealthy friends and colleagues, Patrick enjoys torturing and killing people. A truly equal-opportunity sadist, Bateman commits acts of violence against individuals spanning the social strata, from homeless people and prostitutes to models and fellow Vice Presidents. His murders are not a means to any rational end--he is neither benefited nor protected by them as might be the case in a suspense film. They are also not motivated by misanthropy or the perverse morality of the recent serial killer films such as Se7en or Saw. They are inarticulate responses to a desire which the film refuses to explicitly name.

While his technical designation is Vice President in Mergers and Acquisitions (a phrase Bateman makes interchangeable with "murders and executions"), this title is both more specific and less telling than the old epithet, "Master of the Universe". To the extent to which he can be attributed a personality, he would be best characterized as astonishingly narcissistic and immoral, subscribing wholeheartedly to a Gordon Gekko-esque belief in the value of greed and the justification of self-indulgence. Since he shares his Vice Presidency with both his best friend Timothy Bryce/Justin Theroux and countless others, his specific title is insignificant; it implies less a list of duties than it does a lifestyle. While we never see any of them engaged in any actual work, we do see Bateman using his office to watch "Jeopardy", listen to music on his headset and fill crossword blanks with homicidally obsessive words.


This is indicative of most elements of Bateman's life, from his apartment to his taste in musical theater. Job titles and all other status symbols never refer to the effort that it took to attain them or to the activities that they involve. Rather, they refer almost exclusively to the consumer narratives (or lifestyle narratives) which surround them. This paper's use of these terms is meant to indicate the "full package" offered by any given product, a narratively constructed image of that product's use, encompassing a wide array of aesthetic pleasures. Such narratives are the art of marketing, which draws on the glamorizing power of photography and the moving image. They use this power to tie, for instance, the consumption of a Corona to the pleasurable experience of a lazy afternoon on a secluded, tropical beach. …