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The Greatest Performances of All Time: Christian Bale in American Psycho

6 min read

Lionsgate Films

When the discussion on the great movie villains occurs the usual suspects make the rounds; Heath Ledger's take on The Joker, Darth Vader, Annie Wilkes, Nurse Ratched, Lotso Huggin Bear. But the discussion on 's career defining role in 's 2000 satire is often overlooked when we talk about great movie villains.

American Psycho is a film adaptation of ' controversial bestseller of the same name. Adapted by Harron and her writing partner Guinevere Turner, the film follows New York yuppie , stock broker by day, serial killer by night, music gatekeeper also by night. Ellis' novel was released in the 90s to acclaim and controversy due to the novel's graphic content, with in depth descriptions of murder, sexual abuse, racism complimenting in depth deconstructions of high end restaurants, expensive clothes and Bateman's takes on the popular music of the era. The era being Regan's 80s America.

Bale, by the time American Psycho went into the long production, was a well regarded performer. Having made his name as a child in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, he had gone on to create an interesting career with roles in Newsies, Little Women, The Portrait of a Lady and Velvet Goldmine. But Harron's film was always something of a golden goose for Bale. He was Harron's choice but his lack of “name” recognition at the time meant that both Harron and he were ousted for Oliver Stone and Leonardo DiCaprio. When noted feminist Gloria Steinem implored DiCaprio to step down to think of his young female fans who might be tempted to see the film, he stepped away and eventually Stone too. The irony being Steinem would go on to become Bale's stepmother.

Bale's now notorious commitment to the craft was on full display in his turn as Patrick Bateman, his forensic knowledge of the text coupled with his commitment to changing every aspect of himself for the role. Bale turned his body from average, into the ripped physique we see on display numerous times in the film. He had his teeth capped and whitened to capture the perfect, pearly white smile, and he stayed in accent. His staying in accent was so convincing that donning his British accent at the wrap party people assumed it was for the next film he was doing.

Dead Behind the Eyes

Much of what Bale would bring to his interpretation of Batman in Nolan's trilogy is on full display in Patrick Bateman. A sense that the public figure he presents is nothing but a shallow shell to cover who he truly is first comes to mind. Bale stated that he was inspired by an interview with Tom Cruise on a late night talk show where he saw nothing but a very intense friendliness with nothing beneath. Bateman's public persona of a fairly well mannered, witty broker in the Manhattan elite is only ever as deep as Bateman can maintain.

Bale is a master of his own body able to modulate his actions to perfection. His morning routine, in which he peels a face mask off perfectly, uses a skipping rope and does stomach crunches all appear to be part of a build up to create this facade of who he wants people to think he is. He pointedly states at one point that “I want to fit in”. This is at the heart of Bale's performance. Trying, and at times, failing to maintain a composure.

In the opening scene we see Bateman enjoying a fancy lunch with his colleagues and so-called friends in which one mocks someone for a Jewish faith. Bale's pitch-perfect delivery of “cool it with the anti-semitic remarks” has all the commitment of someone saying sorry when passing by. He doesn't mean it, he just wants to appear to be on the right side.

Bale's ability to show this ever slipping mask is also shown when a chance encounter with an acquaintance at a laundromat forces him to put on a charming face to cover up the fact his bed sheets are stained with blood. As he walks away the forced smile fades into a bloodthirsty glare.

Lionsgate Films

Killer Looks

Bale's physical transformation isn't the only time his body is used to show the way in which Bateman presents himself. During the now infamous business card scene in which various broker's present their cards to show off how much taste they have, Bale forces himself to sweat on cue. His notable cool reserve fading when he realises he doesn't have as much taste as people he deems beneath him. His ability to show this decline over the course of the film becomes more and more present.

When it comes to the grisly murders – horrific but notably toned down from the book – Bale is able to switch between the public persona and the real Bateman. His murder of business associate Paul Allen (Jared Leto) is a prime example. Bale's upbeat monologue about the hidden depth in Huey Lewis and the News, complimented by an ever growing sense of manic frustration is underlined when he puts on a clear raincoat, grabs and axe and begins to moonwalk and dance. By the time Bateman demands people should look to the deeper subtext of the song Hip to be Square about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of friends being a proclamation about the band, he's almost crying with manic desperation. His anger at Allen stemming purely from the fact that he can get a reservation at a top restaurant and Bateman can't.

The horror of Bale's performance begins to come through in his treatment of women. Not only his callous disregard for his girlfriend Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) but his conflicted actions around his secretary Jean (Chloe Sevingy). When he has her round, and makes idle conversation, all the while holding a nail gun to the back of her head, you see the confusion on his face. Bale plays the conflict to perfection, he wants to kill her – he has no real feelings for anyone, and yet her naive nature does charm him. His moment of lucid thought, where he asks her to leave so he doesn't hurt her shows that beneath his yuppie guise he is a human being – albeit a deeply disturbed one.

In prominent sex scenes featuring escort Christie (Cara Seymour) we see the mix of his physical presence, and his internal nature. A sequence in which Bateman admires his own body while having sex, before turning to kill both Christie and socialite Elizabeth (screenwriter Guinevere Turner). His manic roaming the halls hunting for Christie, blood covered and nude wielding a chainsaw shows the monster beneath the facade. Bale contorts his face and hisses as if he has morphed into a predatory animal, fully at home covered in blood and nothing else.

Lionsgate Films

This Confession Meant Nothing

The question of reality in American Psycho is one posed several times. By the climax of the film, when Bateman goes on a murder spree, believing an ATM is asking him to feed it a kitten and giving way to shooting police officers, desk clerks and homeless people. We find the mania has finally caught up with him. Bale's masterful delivery of an answerphone confession in his office to his lawyer is terrifying to witness.

Bale, sweat drenched, and crying, forces his entire body to shake under the weight of his words as he confesses to every murder he believes he's committed. His semi-gleeful semi-terrified delivery of “I killed Paul Allen. With an Axe. In the face!” punctuates just how unhinged his mental state has become, sobbing through descriptions of grisly deaths. The ending of the phone call in which he urges his lawyer to “keep your eyes open”, in a forced cheerful manner puts a full stop on a spree that has left Bateman shaken to his own core.

In the following scene, when Bateman comes face-to-face with his lawyer only to hear that Paul Allen is apparently still alive, and that his lawyer doesn't think Bateman is who he says he is it becomes somewhat clear. Bateman has assimilated so perfectly into the culture that everyone looks the same, everyone dresses the same, everyone eats the same things. Bateman and by extension Bale has posed as this archetype so well he might not even exist.

In the final moments of the film, as he watches an utterly meaningless statement from the President, and his friends continue talk over him, his voice over tells us everything we need to know. As Bale's calm, tempered voice carries over the image of his expressionless face, we learn the most important lesson of all. This confession meant nothing.