"American Psycho:" A Portrait of Toxic Masculinity
Mary Harron's American Psycho is one of the most renowned cult films of the 21st century. However, despite its popularity, it stands as one of the most frequently misunderstood films in history along with David Fincher's Fight Club and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Even though Harron's film might seem rather straightforward, the messages that lie beneath the surface are much more complicated than most people realize. American Psycho is not just about a charismatic serial killer, it is also a perfect example of toxic masculinity and how much privileged, rich white men are able to get away with in the United States.
American Psycho is a 2000 psychological horror/black comedy film directed by Mary Harron based on the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis. The story takes place in New York City, 1987 and follows the life of affluent Wall Street investment banker, Patrick Bateman who despite his perfect lifestyle, is hiding a dark secret, he's a serial killer. According to the script he has slaughtered between 20 and 40 people and indulged in acts of cannibalism on more than one occasion. The film tells the story of an average week in the life of Patrick and the various murders he commits on a regular basis.
American Psycho is a routinely misunderstood movie in the eyes of the public, specifically white men. For a while there was even an internet meme about the most common pickup lines on Tinder being from the film. While inherently concerning, it's easy to see why so many young men would idolize the main character and aspire to be like him. After all, he's rich, successful, charismatic, well-dressed, lives in a beautiful New York apartment and has absolutely no trouble seducing women. However, by revering a character like Patrick Bateman, you're not only failing to analyze the film enough, you're completely missing the point.
Despite the novel being written by a man, the film adaptation's screenplay was entirely created by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner and bears almost no resemblance to the original novel. While it may seem insignificant at first, American Psycho having a female writer and director is extremely important to the overall message and tone of the film. By all accounts, American Psycho is a woman's view of an archetypical, rich Wall Street playboy like Patrick Bateman. This only makes the idolization of the main character so much more confusing. When affluent, white men revere Patrick and see part of themselves in him, they are honoring the part of themselves that women fear. In the scenes where he is attempting to "blend in" as a normal person with normal concerns, Bateman resorts to spewing on about human rights issues, taking the most obvious and agreeable side, such as gender equality, solving homelessness and decreasing materialism. All things, he himself is guilty of going against. Patrick Bateman is a narcissistic liar who knows exactly what to say to manipulate women and paint himself in a good light. There is certainly a case to be made that Mary Harron's adaptation of the story does it more justice than Bret Easton Ellis' novel. The female gaze that looms large over the production adds a layer of cleverness and introspection to American Psycho. I think it's also worthy of note that since writing the novel, Ellis has since become what many news publications call a "Trump apologist." The epitome of everything Harron was criticizing in her film through the main character.
While not explicitly dwelled on during the film's runtime, American Psycho also gives subtle commentary about a common misinterpretation about serial killers such as Patrick Bateman. A huge number of people in the United States have been misled by media and other sources into wrongfully believing that some of the most prolific murderers were geniuses. In reality, very few convicted serial killers were proven to have genius level IQ scores. More often than not their IQs ranged from average to below average. While Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer had scores of 136 and 145 respectively, they're in the minority. Some of America's most famous murders such as Henry Lee Lucas, Gary Ridgway, Aileen Wuornos, and Ottis Toole all had IQs only ranging from 75-85, well below average. So where did this common misconception come from? It has been suggested that this actually began when law enforcement started perpetuating the lie that these criminals were geniuses as a way to somewhat excuse their inability to apprehend them. In other words, law enforcement lied to the public about murderers being geniuses to save themselves some embarrassment. This ties into the film because while Patrick Bateman is a man who has gotten away with a lot of murder, he is not particularly smart. Although he has canonically attended top institutions such as Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard Business School, it is heavily implied that he got in because of his wealth and connections rather than genuine merit. He has become a high ranking investment banker at Pierce & Pierce because his father practically "owns the company." Patrick Bateman is somebody who will point a gun at a stray kitten in public and chases women at night, naked with a chainsaw. Does that sound like a genius to you? He isn't some criminal mastermind like his hero, Ted Bundy, he is a privileged golden boy who has never had to face any real consequences.
At its very core, Mary Harron's adaptation of American Psycho is a commentary about how much rich, white men are able to get with in the United States. This is present in every scene and even the title itself. Patrick Bateman is not just a psycho he is an American psycho. American culture tends to put powerful, affluent white men on a pedestal. There is a laundry list of examples consisting of rich white men similar to Patrick who have gotten away with similar, terrible things. These examples include people like Roger Ailes, Jeffrey Epstein, Dylan Roof, Jeffrey Jones, and most famously: Donald Trump. These men are examples of the "slap-on-the-wrist-esque" treatment that befalls caucasian men no matter the severity of the crime. Jeffrey Jones is a convicted sex offender who starred as Principal Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Dylan Roof committed the 2015 Charleston Church Shooting, killing 9 people in a racially motivated hate crime. Not only are both these men still alive, but Roof has been treated notoriously well by police compared to petty criminals and Jeffrey Jones still finds acting work to this day and most of the public has no idea about his sex offender status. The United States is infamous for its rampant and undeniable favoring of white men over everyone else. So much to the point where they will excuse toxic and sometimes dangerous behaviors as a mental health issue or simply just say "boys will be boys." Patrick Bateman is the embodiment of this toxic, overly defended man who has never had to work for his accomplishments or suffer any repercussions for his wrongdoings. This precedent of rich white men being seen as superior and endlessly excusable is how society breeds men like Patrick and others who aspire to be like him.
American Psycho intends to serve as clear example of just how much affluent white men like Patrick Bateman are able to get away with because of their privilege and treatment in society. This is showcased throughout the entirety of the film's 100 minute runtime as the audience witnesses just how many atrocities Patrick commits and is able to escape, free of any accountability. Over the course of the film, he murders seventeen people on screen and one dog. This includes mostly women, prostitutes, a black homeless man, and his coworker, Paul Allen whom he slaughters viciously with an axe. However, cold-blooded murder is not the only deplorable thing he manages to get away with. During one of the movie's first scenes he lashes out at a female bartender, saying "you're a fucking ugly bitch. I wanna stab you to death then play around with your blood." He shows up to a dry cleaners office with suspicious red stains on his bedsheets and violently reprimands the two Asian owners when they cannot get the stains out. Eventually saying "if you don't shut your fucking mouth, I will kill you," in a very public space. But if that wasn't enough, Patrick openly admits to having homicidal tendencies multiple times throughout the film. While at dinner with his soon-to-be-victim, Paul Allen, he says "I like to dissect girls. Did you know I'm utterly insane?" with a big grin on his face. At a nightclub, Patrick tells a model and another future victim that he specializes in "murders and executions," which she initially writes off, thinking he meant "mergers and acquisitions." Near the end of the film, he opens fire on multiple police officers with a handgun, shoots an old woman to death and almost murders a kitten while at a public ATM machine. Perhaps one of the most iconic scenes in the movie is when Patrick chases a prostitute through the halls of his apartment building, completely nude, covered in blood, brandishing a chainsaw. Eventually he ends up killing her by dropping the chainsaw from a flight of stairs, screaming down the stairwell as it happens. Contrary to the stereotype about serial killers, Patrick Bateman is clearly not a criminal mastermind, he barely makes any effort to hide his barbaric actions. Despite committing these horrific acts out in the open, he is never apprehended or has to face any consequences.
In spite of all the obvious crimes Patrick engages in so candidly, nothing can compare to the self incrimination he commits near the end of the film. After going on a public killing spree, Patrick hides from searchlights in his office. As he sits in the dark, he panics and calls his lawyer, Howard and boldly confesses every murder he has ever commited. Including "maybe five or ten" homeless people, "some escort girls," "an NYU girl" he left in a parking lot, his old girlfriend, Bethany whom he killed with a nail gun, the black homeless man and his dog, and finally: Paul Allen. The official onscreen kill count for American Psycho is eighteen, consisting of seventeen people and one dog, however Patrick admits to have killed "twenty people, maybe forty". If that wasn't enough he also admits to cooking and eating the brains of several victims. The final scene of American Psycho shows Patrick confronting Harold, his coworker about the voicemail where he confessed to several murders. Despite Patrick being visibly distressed, Harold cannot fathom that he's being serious and starts laughing. After numerous times of telling him "I killed Paul Allen...and I liked it" Harold stops finding the sentiment funny but there is no indication that he actually contacted authorities.
If you focus on just how many murders Patrick Bateman was able to get away with you'll start to notice a pattern. No matter how many women, escorts, animals, or people of color he kills, action is only taken as soon as he murders Paul Allen, who like Bateman, is also a rich, white man. Nobody seems to care about the 20-40 other murders yet a full workplace investigation is launched when Allen seemingly goes missing. This isn't a case of only "underground" people being abused since Bateman has also said that some of his other victims include a an NYU student, a model, and even his ex-girlfriend. This highlights yet another theme with toxic white masculinity and that is how our current society will not only excuse the horrific acts of rich white men but also put a ton of effort into protecting them above everyone else. When privileged people like this are relentlessly defended, excused, and protected no matter what it only feeds into the vicious cycle of white male supremacy that looms large over the United States and has since the country's beginning.
The toxic men that society continue to put on a pedestal is perfectly exemplified in Mary Harron's film through Patrick Bateman. This underlying yet ever-present message is what makes American Psycho one of the most brilliant and most tragically misunderstood films in history alongside Fight Club and Full Metal Jacket.