Film

The Female Gaze of ‘American Psycho’: How Mary Harron Made Fantasy Into Timeless Satire

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Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) is a lot of things. A satire about the glittering rot of 1980s America. An excellent showcase for Christian Bale’s skills as an actor. An adaptation that bests the novel it’s based on. But more than anything else the film is a stunning example of the power of the female gaze when it turns its attention to male vanity and violence.

In recent years the term “female gaze” has been used to describe a variety of pop culture breakthroughs, including the romantic drama Outlander, the sci-fi thriller Orphan Black, the subversive fun of Magic Mike XXL, and the hedonistic buddy comedy Broad City. The female gaze centralizes the female perspective, especially during sex scenes, often turning men into sex objects. In American Psycho director Harron and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner suggest that the female gaze can do much more than this. They turn it on violence and the ugly underbelly of the male ego. This disrupts our expectations, pivoting the storytelling away from obvious choices. The camera lingers on details of shared glances and gestures. It treats costuming as character and finds the aftermath of violence more interesting than the actual act.

American Psycho takes place during the late 1980s and centers on Patrick Bateman (Bale), a 27-year-old Wall Street hotshot driven by greed and an insatiable bloodlust. Harron and Turner surgically alter Bret Easton Ellis’s nearly 400-page novel to make their own leaner, more entrancing creation. That they were able to do this is a triumph in itself. In Ellis’s book, satire gets confused with gross exploitation. Much has been made about how in writing from Bateman’s perspective Ellis focuses intently on the ways women are mutilated, raped, disfigured, and killed. After a point his mayhem doesn’t shock — it bores. Ellis’s sexism is actually most apparent in scenes in which Bateman isn’t killing anyone at all. As the journalist Sady Doyle puts it, Ellis’s American Psycho “can’t be a satire of misogyny, because the author takes his own misogyny perfectly seriously, and has embedded it into the structure of the book itself.”

The film adaptation passed through many iterations before going forward with Harron directing and Bale as the star. Directors like David Cronenberg, Danny Boyle, and even Martin Scorsese were suggested. Stars like Ewan McGregor were courted. Oliver Stone was even set to direct with Leonardo DiCaprio to star, fresh off the mammoth success of Titanic. Can you imagine how different it might have been with that pairing? Could they have resisted portraying Bateman as a sort of cool, deranged version of the worst kind of wish fulfillment? Film and television history is riddled with antiheroes and even outright villains framed in this way — Walter White, Rust Cohle, and Tyler Durden, just to name a few. The filmmakers behind these men sometimes fall for the monsters they purport to be critiquing. Audiences in turn sometimes can’t help but root for them, as a Walter White can get away with things real people can only dream of.

American Psycho resits its antihero’s allure. Harron, Turner, and Bale rightfully see Bateman as pathetic. Just look at the sheen of sweat on his face in the film’s most iconic scene, when he rages, internally, at other men for having better business cards than him. Or how he treats women, from his fiancée, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), all the way down to the older Asian woman at the cleaners. He’s the worst aspects of the male id overfed on a steady diet of money, entitlement, and the lie of the American Dream.

Harron eschews the novel’s obsession with outlining Bateman’s most heinous actions, pushing most violence offscreen. We see the blood splatter across Bateman’s face, which can shift from lustful to coolly detached at a clip. Harron smartly lets our imaginations fill in the blank. But the camera does minutely detail the banal decadence of this world through the fine clothing, the sparkling jewelry, the copious drugs. The violence that we are privy to is as emotional as it is visceral. The female gaze is notably concerned with the sort of details that often exist outside of the frame in other films. It’s interested in behavior: You can see it in Bale’s improvised moonwalk before Bateman plants an ax in the skull of Paul Allen (Jared Leto). Or Bateman washing his gloved hands after a co-worker confuses a failed act of violence for a sexual come-on.

American Psycho finds humor in the emotional nihilism of these characters. Harron and Turner understand this milieu so well because knowing how to maneuver around the entitlement of men — whether it be on the street or when pitching a film — is the key to women’s survival. What did Margaret Atwood once say? Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.

In a 2015 interview with Dazed, Turner said, “I very much think [American Psycho is] a feminist film. It’s a satire about how men compete with each other and how in this hyper-real universe we created, women are even less important than your tan or your suit or where you summer. And to me, even though the women are all sort of tragic and killed, it’s about how men perceive and treat them.” For all the trappings of upper-crust 1980s Manhattan, the story is as old as time itself: the evil that men do and how they can get away with it.

There’s something oddly timeless about the drives at Bateman’s core: vanity, greed, misogyny. For all his good looks, money, and Reagan-era traits, Bateman represents a lot of men throughout history. News stories like that of the young Italian woman recently chased down by her ex-boyfriend before being burned alive on the outskirts of Rome suggest a frightening truth. Maybe Bateman’s violence isn’t as outlandish as it first seems.

Of course, none of this would work without Bale being smart enough to understand the gaze he’s operating within. Harron recounted in an interview with Black Book that Bale “had been watching Tom Cruise on David Letterman, and [saw that Cruise] had this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes, and he was really taken with this energy.” Bale plays the character without exhibiting any need to be liked or understood, something it’s hard to imagine a star like DiCaprio daring. DiCaprio takes a swing at this sort of toxic masculinity wrapped in a false power fantasy in Wolf of Wall Street, but he failed to go far enough in embracing the character’s inherent unlikability. Bale’s Bateman is alternatively a mad dog, a shallow con man, and a charismatic mask hiding existential unease whenever the film calls for it. American Psycho recognizes Bateman’s physical beauty and how it can operate as a shield for him. The camera travels over his impressive body, emphasizing how this visage obscures the darkness underneath.

Ellis told Movieline in 2010, “There’s something about the medium of film that requires the male gaze.” What’s hilarious about his line of thinking is that it’s thanks to the subversive female gaze that the adaptation of his novel is such a success. Harron’s film gets under our skin delving into the effects of violence, male vanity, and the horrors of the patriarchy let loose. There is a ripe satire about Reagan’s America and the evil that powerful men get away with buried underneath the (purposeful but wrongheaded) monotony of Ellis’s writing. It just took two women to find it.

American Psycho screens Thursday, June 9 and Sunday, June 12, as part of Film Forum’s “Genre Is a Woman” series.