American Psycho (2000), a film directed by Marry Harron, truly shows the dark side of the American dream. The main character, Patrick Bateman, is a rich young man who appears to have no personal identity. Patrick explains that “there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory.... I simply am not there;” he even remains at his job because he “wants to fit in.” He has everything that anyone could possibly desire: an expensive apartment, fine clothes, and many other top-of-the-line products. These possessions he has accumulated mean little to him other than the high social status they help ascribe him. There is a theory that Newitz calls economic identity which is “the ability to produce efficiently, but more notably… the ability to consume” (70). Since these products are all that Bateman knows how to relate to, he becomes the ultimate consumer in this satire on American culture.
A competition of sorts takes place between Bateman and his co-workers, at least from Bateman’s point-of-view. If one of the co-workers has a better apartment or a better suit than he has, then Bateman grows immediately envious. On one occasion he nearly kills one of his co-workers for having the same kind of business card that he does. Fittingly, the film is set in the 1980’s when materialism and greed defined the times. The ability to consume and produce efficiently has been called “homo economicus” or economic man by Newitz (70). Newitz says, “The most important personality trait of homo economicus is that he can never be satiated” (70). Bateman displays this feature to the maximum degree.
Everything is about surface for Bateman. He is a completely self-absorbed character. Giving specific details of his entire morning routine, Bateman describes all of the products he uses to get ready for the day. He does not devote any time thinking about what someone else wants. The goal for him is to get what he desires as soon as possible. Bateman is in peak physical shape, doing exercises every day. He judges his associates on how well they dress or how good an apartment they have. When he sees a bum sitting in an alley, he does not see a person, but a burden or failure of society. According to Grant these people “represent the horror of career failure he fears most” (27). As a result of these fears, Bateman kills the man and walks away. Patrick has no ethical depth to him whatsoever. He does not feel sorry about any of his killings.
Bateman shares no real connections with anyone, even his fiancé. He spends time with his fellow workers, but only because he wants to fit in with the crowd. Sometimes he will feign an interest in what someone is saying, but not much more. Most of the time, he is merely going through the motions. Even with his sexual encounters, Bateman has no real emotion involved. Grant says, “Bateman’s sexuality and desire, like everything else about him, is thoroughly determined by consumer culture” (31). He does not care about the women that he is with; he just uses them for his own pleasure. Thus, the women resemble more merchandise that Bateman makes use of. When he videotapes his sexual encounters, the focus is completely on him. He looks into the mirror and poses for himself while flexing his muscles. This facilitates him to achieve what he witnesses on television and what is promoted by the culture. When he is finished, he disposes of the bodies as he would an old product that has been outdated.
A theme that runs throughout the film is that Bateman’s colleagues confuse each other for someone else. Grant remarks that, “Ironically, nobody notices that the people Bateman has killed are missing because they are all virtually interchangeable” (30), as so many products often are. Bateman gets out of trouble more than once because of this confusion. Also, people seem to misunderstand Bateman at times, such as when he insults people and they seem not to notice or think he meant something else. At times Bateman reveals his homicidal tendencies, “I'm into... well murders and executions mostly.” Only the people around him hear “mergers and acquisitions” instead, because the room is crowded and loud.
American Psycho does not take place in a Gothic setting like most serial killer films, but in traditional homes, restaurants, night clubs, and office buildings. Grant says that it “provides the perfect touchtone for a contemporary consideration of general representations of violence” (25). By bringing the action closer to commonplace areas, the film comments on society the way most thrillers could not. People are familiar with these surroundings either directly or indirectly, so the message can resonate quite well.
American Psycho can be easily compared and contrasted to Fight Club, another film about consumerism and society. Both films are about young men who are dissatisfied with their lives and try to fill the void with violence. While American Psycho tries to consume as much as possible, Fight Club tries to break down the whole process of consumerism. Despite having entirely opposite motives, each of the main characters feels that they have to use violence to get what they want. The American dream has evaded these people for so long that they feel as if they must take matters into their own hands. When events start to go awry, both of the protagonists panic and confess what they have done. They run through a surreal world that they can no longer control.
The same way that Patrick describes the products he uses in the morning, he talks about different music artists he enjoys listening. He offers his thoughts on certain CDs before killing his victims; probably quoting from some reviews that he has read. This happens several times throughout the film with several other types of products. These are the times when Bateman gets to show off just how savvy a consumer he has become. After he is finished proving that point, he effectively “consumes” his victims by killing them. Later in the film, he even admits to eating a few of the victims and trying to cook one as well. At that point, Bateman has proved that he is willing to go to any lengths to achieve his needs.
Many viewers have been desensitized to violent films, especially in recent years. In the same way that desensitized viewers experience violence on screen, sometimes Bateman carries out his murders in a way that shows little reaction. At times he simply kills and walks down the street, thinking nothing about it, except getting caught.
In the end, American Psycho proves to be a scathing social commentary about America’s obsession with consumerism. Like Bateman, sometimes we cannot help ourselves from consuming too much. Patrick shows the ultimate consumer can never be satisfied with what they have. He is a completely hollow individual who can never have enough and only envies those who possess more.
Grant, Barry Keith. “American Psycho/sis: The Pure Products of America Go Crazy” Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media. Ed. Christopher Sharrett. Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1999.