American Psycho (2000): Individuality through Conformity [Thematic Analysis]

 

American Psycho—perhaps one of this century’s greatest dark comedies, was based on a 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis. The film version, released in 2000 was directed by Mary Harron and stars Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, a 27 year old Wall Street businessman. There is more to this film than meets the eye and it takes a few viewings to really appreciate the subtle ways Harron communicates the deeper themes of the story.

This video is going to be a little different than my others—this will be a straight analysis of how director Mary Harron communicates Bateman’s crisis of identity and his dual nature. Let’s get started…

About five minutes into the movie we are introduced to Bateman’s swanky New York apartment, arguably the most important set of the movie and his most important possession. We know this because, in his narration, he first identifies himself as living in the apartment, before even telling us his name.

“I live in the American Gardens building on West 81st Street—on the 11th floor. My name is Patrick Bateman. I am 27 years old.”

It is clear by this and other countless examples throughout, that he views his social status better represents the idea of Patrick Bateman that he, himself does.

As we see, the narrative space is introduced with an almost POV tracking shot without action or distinguishable characters. There is only a fleeting glimpse of Bateman as he moves about the apartment, away from the camera’s view. The camera moves through the hallway and into his empty living room, and then pans across the room to show how clean and meticulously arranged it is further highlighting Batemans connection to the space. The shots of his apartment that follow are framed so that walls appear on either side, giving the audience a sense of boundary that represents the confines of acceptable social behavior. The theme of identity through one’s social behavior is expanded upon as aspects of the mise-en-scène suggest there are two sides to Bateman: the wicked, murderous side and the social, charismatic side. For example, everything in the apartment is either black or white, including two large paintings of mostly silhouetted human figures. In the first tracking shot of his living room, only the first painting is visible, showing that one side of him is currently hidden. The idea of Batman’s duel nature will be discussed more in-depth later.

When he is around his colleagues, Bateman’s narration has him sizing them up based on office politics, taste in clothing, and other seemingly trivial categories.

“Marcus and I even go to the same barber. Although, I have a slightly better haircut.”

He identifies himself as better than everyone, with arrogance befitting an American white upper-class male stereotype. We get a sense of how he thinks people view him through the use of many close-ups of his face in the center of the frame with a shallow depth of field, showing that he is the center of attention and no one else matters. Socially, people are usually identified through their face and, in the scene where Bateman goes through his morning routine, we see just how much care and effort he puts into maintaining his face. Usually close-ups reveal flaws but here they reveal just how flawless Bateman believes himself to be. And through editing, we see that these center-of-attention close-ups convey a sense of pride for Bateman. In a scene where he is being interviewed by Donald Kimball, Kimball asks his address over a medium long shot of Bateman. A medium shot of his response is followed by a medium shot of Kimball replying,

“Nice. Very nice.”

which then cuts to a close-up of Bateman smirking and saying,

“Thanks.”

For a brief moment, Bateman is gratified on what he believes to be the best part of him— his apartment.

The idea of self-reflection versus the way others view us is presented in many camera angles showing Bateman’s face reflected in mirrors and other surfaces. This is even present on the poster. One of the first examples of this occurs during the narration of Bateman introducing himself. We see a slow zoom to a close-up of a reflection of Bateman’s face in a framed Les Mis poster, suggesting an examination of self is taking place. The red, white, and blue colors depicting the French flag that appear over Bateman’s face can also be noted as the colors of the American flag as he wears the idea of being a perfect American specimen. Aside from self-reflection, the constant shots of Bateman reflected in mirrors also seem to suggest that he has two sides his identity. The lighting in this shot comes only from the right side of the frame causing half of his face to be well lit and the other half dark and barely visible. We may perceive this as being an expression of his dual nature with one side seemingly appealing and the other, wicked side hiding in the darkness. This dual nature is also alluded to in the black and white motif occurring in his apartment. His apartment represents both his social identity and his darker identity as it is his main measure of social status but it is also where he allows his dark side to come out. One of the most significant examples of this visual metaphor is in a close-up of Bateman’s face reflected in a mirror as he applies an “herb-mint facial mask”, which represents the artificial identity he must put on for others. After a camera tilt showing many skin care products, we cut back to the close up his face. Now, frontal lighting creates a shine on the facial mask suggesting a sense of synthetic beauty in this persona. However, when he peels the mask off, the shine goes away and we are left with a similar but darker identity below the surface.

The concept of masks appears elsewhere in the movie through the distortion or covering of Bateman’s face and body. In the scene where Bateman axes Paul Allen to death, Bateman’s costume consists of a transparent raincoat over his regular Valentino suit.

“Is that a raincoat?”

“Yes, it is!”

This hints at the idea that his darker identity has been brought out and his social identity is now in the background. When he finally kills Paul Allen, we see blood spray onto half of Bateman’s face. The right half of Bateman’s face is covered in Paul’s blood while the left half remains clean reminiscent of the shot of his face reflected in the Les Mis poster. Bateman’s blocking has him standing at a ¾ turn with the bloody side being most visible. The half of his face that was once dark is now in clear view, well lit, and covered in blood. His wicked identity is now out of the darkness and dominating his charismatic side. We also see his apartment’s once hidden second painting featured prominently behind him. It should also be noted that this painting is looking away signifying that no one will seem to notice or care that this violent crime took place. The blocking then has Bateman walk with his right bloody side in full profile and then turn 180 degrees and sit down with his left clean side now in full profile revealing his transformation back to his normal self.

The struggle between his right and left side is a motif that is featured throughout the movie. The lighting in nearly every scene has Bateman lit from either his right or his left side with the other side in shadow. Bateman’s blocking during every murder or murder attempt has him with the right side of his face towards the camera showing that his wicked side is in control of his identity.

Here she kicks him in the left side of the face, which he deems to be off-limits.

Here he shows the police his left side and then, out of the darkness of his right side comes the gun.

And here he realizes that his left side is compromised and he pulls the gun out from his right side.

The only exception to this is when he holds a nail gun to Jean’s head; the blocking shows him facing to the left suggesting that his more human side is still maintaining control. We see this is true when he ultimately decides not to murder Jean.

In one notable scene, Bateman and his colleagues compare business cards in a boardroom. The blocking shows Bateman sitting next to Louis but facing away while Louis speaks to him showing us that Bateman views Louis as being so beneath him that Louis isn’t even worthy of his attention. The mise-en-scene displays a simple boardroom with nothing special to set it apart from any other boardroom. The costumes as part of this mise-en-scene commence the subject of identity in this scene. The costumes of the men are very similar to each other with almost identical suits and glasses and even haircuts. Bateman is even mistaken for one of his colleagues by the name of Marcus Halberstram by Bateman’s biggest rival, Paul Allen. There is a bit of subtle humor in the fact that Paul Allen compliments Bateman on his tie,

“Hello Halberstram… Nice tie.”

as the color of their ties is the only discernible difference in their appearance.

Paul Allen carries himself as a big shot because he landed the coveted Fischer account and even acquired reservations at the elusive Dorsia restaurant. Bateman is disturbed by the idea that Paul Allen is better than him. We get a sense of this when we see that Paul Allen is shot only from a low angle and sometimes seems to tower over the camera conveying a sense of tallness in both stature and status. This is stressed further when we see a low angle of Paul Allen even in a long-shot of him leaving.

A ghostly breath can be heard when Paul Allen hands Bryce his business card, informing us that there is something important about this prop. The same sound can be heard when Bateman takes out his new business card, coupled with the switchblade sound effect

“Is that a gram?”

suggesting that he is challenging his colleagues’ social status. However, when we cut from Bateman sliding the card onto the table to a close up of the card, it becomes clear he is not just offering up his card for review but himself as well. The show Bateman primarily in center-framed close ups. He sees himself more evenly matched with his colleagues that once thought when their medium shots eventually cut to center-framed medium close-ups. There is a side-by-side close up of Bateman and Van Patten’s cards and we see that they are near identical.

Even though the cards are shown large enough in the frame to distinguish small differences, they look more or less the same. Every card has the same information on it except for the name. All of them even share the same job title. But Bateman can see every detail as pertaining to the person’s worth. Whereas the businessmen see their business cards as representing their identity through individuality, we the audience view the men to be as homogenous as their business cards. This motif is even present during the opening credits. The names of the crew appear on the frame much in the same way they would on a business card. With just a name and job title, it is hard to keep track of who is who. Seeing as the businessmen are often mistaken for other people, perhaps it is as hard for them to differentiate faces as it is for us to differentiate their business cards.

Like the business cards, the men’s costumes also make them seem to blur together. All of their outfits, including Bateman’s, are as strikingly similar as the business cards and the men’s identities seem to be. In his narration and dialogue, Bateman occasionally distinguishes the differences between the outfits by revealing their brand names. With the names being the only difference between the suits, business cards, and men, can they really be different at all?

One costume piece of Bateman’s that does stand out is his walkman which he uses to listen to 1980s pop songs. Many scenes begin with the sound of a seemingly non-diegetic pop song that turns out to be coming from his headphones. Bateman’s infatuation with pop music fits with his desperate desire to fit in which is apparent when he mentions that he started liking certain artists when they became more commercial and mainstream. The irony here is that no one else seems to like these musicians. He often talks passionately about songs that happen to carry themes related to his own psyche. The way he speaks about Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love of All lends insight into the idea that he is constantly working to maintain his identity and social standing with a misplaced understanding of its message of dignity and self-preservation. Perhaps the most important of these monologues is when Bateman talks to Paul Allen about Huey Lewis and the News’ song It’s Hip to be Square as he prepares to murder him.

“Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?”

“They’re okay.”

He explains to Paul Allen that the song’s message is about the importance of conformity before he axes him in the face. As Paul Allen is Bateman’s biggest rival, the revelation of this message seems to suggest to us that killing him is just business and Bateman is just trying to become the alpha dog. It may also be noted that Bateman axes Paul Allen in the face, and since the face is one representation of identity, Bateman literally destroys Paul Allen’s identity.

We see Bateman replacing the alpha dog, but only in his world outside the business world. The best example of this is in a scene where Bateman invites two prostitutes over to his apartment. The sense of identity confusion is apparent from the start when he gives the prostitutes new names and has them call him Paul Allen.

“I’m going to call you Sabrina. I’m Paul Allen.”

His costume in this scene is a tuxedo, which he wears in celebration of his new status. However, he is troubled when he finds out that the prostitutes do not care what he does for a living. During their sex scene, the mirror motif is present in a shot that pans across two mirrors showing Bateman flexing his muscles as he looks at his own reflection. He is more interested in himself than anything else. The sequence is interspersed with shots from a diegetic camcorder in the room. These shots have a voyeuristic quality to them and we can imagine him watching the tapes and seeing a fantasy of how others view him. Even though this sequence is about his charismatic side, we still see hints of his darker side. For one, the camcorder view is in black and white denoting the black and white sides of Bateman. The lighting comes from the left side of the frame and causes a shadow of Bateman to be projected on the wall behind them as if to say that Bateman’s darker side is present in the room as well. Bateman’s shadow even looks as though it is strangling the prostitute’s shadow while he has sex with her.

American Psycho comments on the animalistic side that everyone keeps hidden for the sake of social acceptance. It is revealed by the end of the movie that Bateman is embarrassed by his heinous crimes and, when he confesses, he is ashamed of every murder except the murder of Paul Allen. The murder of Paul Allen was not to fulfill a perversion but a way for his darker side to help his social side. Bateman’s social side satirizes the American capitalist ideology through the desire for material objects as both an exercise of individual expression and a way to fit in. It comments on the idea that we all desire to be unique while still conforming for the sake of social relationships. Whereas the business men express their individuality through wearing a particular brand of suit, we the audience see these details as insignificant. It is possible that others view our expressions of individuality as insignificant as well.

Thanks for watching! Back in late 2012/early 2013 I started a YouTube channel on film and this analysis was the first video I made. Well, it got flagged by Content ID and taken down and it discouraged me enough to quit. It was well over a year before I gave it another go and started this channel. Looking back on how great it has been to work on these videos and all of the great people I’ve gotten the opportunity to connect with, I decided to remake it using what I’ve learned with how to get around Content ID. I guess we’ll see what happens with this one, but I really want to encourage people who are interested in making videos like these to give it a shot. And if you ever need any advice, drop me a line on facebook or twitter.

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This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tyler Knudsen.

Music:

“True Faith” by New Order

“Scattered Knowledge” by Revolution Void

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Understanding filmmaking through watching, researching, and analyzing film.