The Controversy and Cult Following of American Psycho (2000)

Adapted from the controversial novel by Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho follows the story of Patrick Bateman, an attractive young businessman who also happens to be a psychopath. While trying to hide this aspect of his identity from his friends and co-workers, Bateman (played by Christian Bale) secretly gives into his violent desires as the film progresses. 

A financial and critical success when it was released in 2000, the popularity of American Psycho has only grown in the following decades. The film is now regarded as something of a cult classic. Not only is it beloved by multiple generations of audiences, it is the constant subject of Instagram memes and TikTok trends. A clip of Bateman saying, “I like to dissect girls”, laid over a Tame Impala song, is currently blowing up as an audio on TikTok, with nearly 50k videos using the sound. 

Regarded by some as a feminist statement and others as misogynistic, you would be hardpressed to find another film that generates such polarised responses. Often regarded as a film about men, for men, it is perhaps shocking to remember that American Psycho was directed by a woman. Director Mary Harron also co-wrote it for the screen with Guinevere Turner.

In Roger Ebert’s review of the film, he claims it is ‘just as well’ American Psycho was directed by a woman, as Harron ‘transformed a novel about blood lust into a movie about men’s vanity’. While it is true that Ellis’ novel is even more disturbing than the movie, the author noted in an interview that one of the things he appreciated about the adaptation was that Harron made the satirical aspects of the story more obvious. She translated the intended comedy onto the screen. 

The comedy is so dark that viewers may feel conflicted on whether to laugh or wince. There’s nothing inherently funny about watching a man chop someone up with an axe, or break up with his girlfriend because he needs to “engage in homicidal behaviour on a massive scale”, yet these are some of the film’s best comedic moments. 

In an early scene, now heralded as an iconic moment in cinema, Bateman follows his meticulous morning routine. Bale narrates in his cold American accent, obsessively detailing everything from the number of stomach crunches the character can do, to the exact kind of water-activated gel cleanser he uses in the shower. Though the satire is even clearer to modern audiences, given the rise of YouTube skincare routines and TikTok ‘get ready with me’ videos, the scene is an example of the film’s unique brand of comedy. 

But a film’s intentions aren’t always reflected in its reception. Despite being satirical, there are many men who take American Psycho seriously. Patrick Bateman has become an icon for incels. Men on Reddit idolise him, for his wealth, good looks, and ‘success’ with women. Of course, this success includes violently assaulting sex workers, but that detail rarely comes up. 

In my investigation of the men who idolise Patrick Bateman, I saw some Reddit users referring to the character as a ‘sigma male’. The term refers to a man who is on the same level as an alpha, but sits outside the social hierarchy by his own choice. This is a pretty baffling label to be assigned to anyone, let alone Bateman, who in one scene states, categorically: “I want to fit in.” 

The protagonist’s desperate need to conform allows Harron to poke fun at the unoriginality of corporate life. Bateman’s decision to kill Paul Allen is sparked by a business card that looks almost exactly like his own. He experiences “sheer panic” at the realisation that Allen’s apartment is slightly more expensive than his. These minute differences mean everything to Bateman’s perceptions of the hierarchy of his world, and result in consequences so horrific you almost forget their ridiculous origins. 

Unable to distinguish himself from every other yuppie, and bogged down by his vague job, Bateman’s personality is split in two. His attempt to control every aspect of his appearance and public image eventually causes the indecent, perverted parts of his personality to leak out at night, in a sort of Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy. 

But what makes Bateman interesting is that he’s not that different to the characters around him. Plenty of people, particularly men who work office jobs, feel they need to suppress parts of their personality in order to get ahead, causing their hidden urges to emerge elsewhere. This usually takes the form of porn addictions, video games, or heavy drinking. The idea that the ‘true masculine self’ is constrained by materialism and the mundanity of corporate life is known as the ‘crisis of masculinity’.

It is this relatability that causes many male viewers to feel connected to Bateman. They see their frustrations and desires realised in him, albeit in an exaggerated way. In creating a character who is laughably evil yet strangely understandable, Harron created a monster. And, unwittingly, an army of internet impersonators and angsty incels. 

My research into the American Psycho fanbase left me wondering if a film this misunderstood can still be deemed a success. Can a film with such fraught associations be extricated and enjoyed on its own terms?
However, it is the divisiveness of American Psycho that reveals the beauty of Harron’s satire. This is a film so purposefully embroiled in controversy that the polarised responses all feed into the unknowable enigma of Bateman, making him an endlessly fascinating character.

Daniella Clarke

Featured Image Source: Still via Youtube // Hip to be Square – American Psycho (3/12) Movie Clips (2000) HD // MovieClips

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