American Psycho: Shadows and Reflections of the Id
By, Kristin Grady
In the 1980’s, Canadian writer/director Mary Harron was entrenched in the punk rock scene of New York City, becoming the first writer to interview the Sex Pistols for an American magazine. Her second feature film, American Psycho (2000), focused on the polar opposite of her 80’s experience, the dark desires of the super-rich. The Reagan era created an insatiable class of wealthy consumerists exploiting the impoverished. The “yuppie” culture imposed extreme conformity, so much that no one can tell anyone apart. Punk outright rebelled against Reagan and the already wealthy class benefitting from his policies, giving Harron a searing perspective through which to shape this savage satire.
Punk rock and Wall Street do share a common trait, feeding/satisfaction of the Id. Loud music, slam dancing, and amphetamines fed many base desires of 80’s punk rockers. The villain/protagonist Patrick Bateman satiates his carnal instincts with a wider variety of drugs, striving for status amidst a horde of identical young professionals, and murder. “Greed and disgust” are Patrick’s only self-proclaimed identifiable emotions. These are the two sides of the Freudian Id. “Want” and “Do not want” rule his every decision.
The novel basis for the film was written by Brett Easton Ellis, as a satire of the extreme consumerist echelons of society. Due to the book’s existing reputation as a glorification of violence, especially against women, the film’s production was protested by feminist and anti-violence activist groups. In an act of true punk rock defiance, Mary Harron went out of her way to portray violent scenes from the victim’s point of view, seeding the film with subliminal messages intended to stoke our Ids and reflect on our shadows.
Mise en Scène
The intro credits establish a visual prologue and foreshadow more character traits than plot points. Blood-like raspberry sauce, beautiful rotating images of delicate gourmet dishes, and this lingering shot of Patrick’s apartment all establish his duplicitous nature. The minimalist black and white aesthetic was popular in the 80’s and represents the extreme polarity in which he exists. Following the pan of the camera from left to right, we see a chair resembling a ladder to a grid of identical squares, displaying his first priority: climbing the social ladder to appear like everyone else. A vaguely phallic shadow grows to the right of the chair, illustrating the Id in a beam of light (the film itself) taller than the chair.
The telescope is in many scenes and it’s not only part of the decor, it also raises suspicious questions. Light pollution makes it difficult for astronomy hobbyists to see many stars in New York City, so why would Patrick have a telescope? To spy on people in other buildings, judge them, and compare himself to them, thus feeding his greed and voyeuristic tendencies.
Next to the telescope, the wall-sized painting of a disembodied suit either running or falling represents his Ego, the mask he wears to cover up the Id consuming his personality. The shadow falling over the painting resembles prison bars, which both make him seem confined and free from confinement, depending on how you look at it. Patrick is trapped in a loop of consumption and conformity, yet free to indulge his maniacal Id without legal consequences.
It’s Hip to be Square
One of the most popular scenes in the movie is also the most brightly lit. Showing men are just as susceptible to predators getting them drunk, Paul Allen is sprawled out in a carefully prepared crime scene. Tarps cover the furniture, so taping the newspapers to the floor was a conscious decision. Perhaps Patrick yearns for his murders to hit the papers? The brightness of the scene and the subliminal plea for fame reveals Patrick’s desire for his evil deeds to be seen. Paul ironically asks if Patrick has a dog, a Chow, which both sounds like a pretentious way to say goodbye and a synonym for “consume” or “meat/food”.
The absence of shadow is unique amongst the other violent scenes. Patrick’s Id wants to see every inch of this ax murder, but his ego doesn’t want stains on the furniture. Paul’s inebriation is only part of the reason he doesn’t see his impending death. The mask of normalcy Patrick wears is so effective, no one suspects him, even his nearly identical rival.
The disembodied suit painting in this shot is a significant indicator of Patrick’s removal from reality. His Ego cheerfully recites a review of the song “Hip to be Square”, extolling the “pleasures of conformity” as he prepares to murder Paul.
We finally see the other black and white wall-sized painting in the room as Patrick chops Paul to death below the frame. The woman with her hair covering her face almost looks beheaded, as Patrick has lost his head to the deep, dark shadows in him. His blood-covered face appears relieved, but not satisfied.
Mirrors reflect a lot of the film’s symbolism, due to Patrick’s obsessive cultivation of Ego, which conceals and serves his all-consuming Id. After applying a laundry list of expensive-sounding skin products, he peels off this “herb mint facial mask”, showing us the ultra-symmetrical face that hides his monstrous true form, juxtaposed by an emotionless, inhuman stare.
During a foursome with his Ego, Id, and two sex workers, Patrick pays more attention to the mirror than the women. Flexing and preening for his reflection, in the mirror and the video camera, Patrick is posing as a slightly better version of Paul Allen. Killing Paul wasn’t enough, he had to put on the costume of his life, metaphorically live in his skin. This brief pan shows us two identical Patricks between a funnel-shaped sculpture. The funnel could represent his desires flowing into his Ego, filling him with a brief sense of satisfaction.
Before Patrick attempts to strangle Louis for having an inexplicably better business card, two bathroom mirrors stare at him. His body is separate from his hand, which seems to be guiding his decisions. It’s dangerous for Patrick to kill someone he knows in a place he frequents, but his reason erodes as his bloodlust grows. The gloves appear to be more for grip than a lack of fingerprints.
Patrick’s fragile masculinity is threatened when Louis mistakes his attempted murder for an attempted gay hook-up. His reflection looks miserable as he washes his gloves in the sink out of 80’s AIDS paranoia and inherent homophobia. He’s so disgusted that Louis thought he would reciprocate, for once, he can’t look at himself. It’s almost fun to see Patrick crumble from a kiss on the wrist. Male abusers tend to be homophobic because they’re afraid to be treated the way they treat women.
Every good horror movie has an effective use of shadow symbolism, but American Psycho wraps the most horrifying implications in an elegant tapestry of shadows. Contrasted by Paul’s brightly-lit death, the violence against women is committed in brief, darkened shots.
Post-gratuitous-sex scene, Patrick searches through a drawer of rusty tools, which gleams from a sharp fragment of light in the shadowy room. He selects a wire coat-hanger, impling he’s about to perform a preemptive abortion. The hook of the hanger points toward the woman, who is cut up into pieces by the shadows of the blinds.
A woman running away from a monster down a hallway is a horror movie trope, extrapolated in this scene by Patrick’s chainsaw phallus, the maniacal glee in his expression, and the futility of Christy’s escape. We want her to get away as she runs through severe shards of light and shadow. It doesn’t seem possible for Patrick to drop the chainsaw right on her as she bolts down the sharp-angled spiral staircase. We know what’s going to happen even though we don’t want it to. In the end, the piercing shadows surround Christy’s body, pointing at her like the grinding teeth of a chainsaw.
The only time Patrick appears genuinely happy is in the post-crime-spree scene where he confesses his murderous behavior to his lawyer’s answering machine. Like a lot of serial killers, Patrick wants to be caught. He wants the catharsis of confession and the negative attention of consequence. His face is half in shadow, turned toward the light. Patrick’s Superego is all surface, so he has no real sense of morality, but he knows how to fake it for the adulation of his peers. He doesn’t want redemption, he wants acknowledgement for his crimes, even though at this point he thinks there will be legal consequences.
This Confession Has Meant Nothing
Patrick’s last line is his biggest lie of all. There is so much more meaning in this film than a person like him could ever realize or want to acknowledge. Two more “mirror” shots wrap up the film’s subversive visual metaphors. After his lawyer insists his confession is impossible, Patrick sits diagonally across from a TV on which Ronald Reagan is speaking. Reaganomics created the 80’s Wall Street generation on a philosophy of free trade and wildly excessive consumption. Patrick is reflective of Reagan himself because he got away with unthinkable crimes. The position of the exit sign shows Patrick he will always have a way out.
There’s a lot to be said about where directors choose to place their credits. This mirror-shot reflects the harassed bartender in the opening credits who Patrick threatens when her back is turned. The bartender’s last line is “What can I get you?” Mary is telling us her role in the film. It’s her job to serve up a substance that makes us feel good for a little while and has either disastrous or hopefully introspective results. When asked the difference between being a Canadian director and an American director, she said she doesn’t want to tell anyone what to do, she’s more interested in ambiguity.
American Psycho is a meticulously constructed satire full of shadowy metaphors, declaring the timeless message: “Things are not what they seem.” A beautiful face and a fashionable suit can be imperceptible camouflage for a dangerous psychotic. Mary Harron let the extremes of her villain/protagonist out to wreak havoc for our entertainment, but not without placing subliminal messages for red flags. The Patrick Batemans of the world may never see consequences, so all we can do is steer clear and leave them in their shadows.
Kristin Grady is a freelance writer, video editor, and graphic designer in Hollywood. Check out more content on imaginationforsale.blog!
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