Thoughts On: American Psycho
Patrick Bateman lives two lives, by day a self-absorbed investment banker, by night a deranged serial killer.
In the previous post I covered Hitchcock’s Psycho. There was a lot I went into with that post, but I tried to keep it centred on the theme at hand, marriage and romance, as much as I could. But, a huge part of Psycho is craziness, it’s psychosis, serial killer, madness that we all enjoy. And it’s because I couldn’t get into that part of the film that I felt the post was lacking and incomplete. So, whist this isn’t apart of the Receptacle Series, feel free to think of this as an extension of the previous post.
The primary philosophical question at hand with any character based horror movie comes straight to the audience. This is because these are films with anti-heroes, films we often enjoy. And make no mistake, I love this film, I find it gleeful, light, fun and utterly nuts in all the right ways. But, is this the intended purpose of the film, and is this ok? With American Psycho I think it depends on whether or not you can identify with Patrick’s thought process. He has no core character. He’s in a fake world and he has to be whatever he has to be just to get by. To handle the grating effecting, the painful, twisting knife in this side that is a fake world, he vents by stabbing a bitch once in a while. Of course by my saying I understand Patrick it doesn’t then mean I’d ever kill someone. But, to think about violence, watch action movies, fucked up horrors like this, even violent sports, listen to violent music – it’s simply cathartic to me. People get angry, I get angry, and there’s ways of dealing with that. So, to those like me who like Patrick, who find this film a great time, understand the joyous feeling in certain types of destruction, I suppose we identify with the hyperbolisation of ourselves, of a need for catharsis via aggression. Though, everything discussed thus far is all about imagination, usually about second hand aggression (watching a UFC match, never really street brawling) there’s a reality to imaginings. Whilst UFC is perfectly fine, what Patrick does isn’t. This all comes back to Norman Bates here with a question of: should we sympathise with these characters? Should we care for the plight of the evil?
With American Psycho I find one of the most compelling cases to do this. To make my point of why, let’s get into what Bateman lives through. With some of the best voice over ever recorded we start the film with who Patrick thinks he is. He assumes he is an idea, that who he is seen as is some kind of abstraction, that there is no real him, that he simply is not there. This is grade A solipsism. Solipsism is the belief that you are the only self or person you can definitively know exists. Solipsism is thus pragmatic reasoning. In the same way you wouldn’t believe in God or a unicorn because there’s no rational or scientific reason to, a solipsist wouldn’t believe in others. However, later on in the film we find out that Patrick takes solipsism one step further. He assumes that because others do not recognise him as a person, or that he cannot recognise them as something like himself, he is then not human. This is a nihilistic take on the idea of self. If you can’t believe in others, what are you without comparison? Why should you believe in yourself? It’s this emptiness that Patrick sees in the world that he tries to embody. However, he claims that the only emotions that fill his shell of self are greed and disgust. What soon becomes obvious is that these emotions are his only way of feeling – of feeling human. This is what Patrick is in denial of the whole film. He does in some way feel human. He says he doesn’t exist, that he’s a shell, that no one can do anything for him, but he is a slave to emotions and when he ends up in a world he thought he existed in, he doesn’t like it one bit. That’s what happens with the ending and the escalating absurdities he gets away with. People just stop recognising the fucked up shit he does, they accept that he doesn’t exist – just like he wanted. This drives him insane though.
What this all implies is that he’s always been more than a shell, that saying he doesn’t exist is nothing more than a coping mechanism for him. There’s evidence of this throughout the film. Not only does he feel fear, does he enjoy killing, but he understands music. It’s his monologues on Phil Collins, Genesis, meditations on intangibility, conformity and the joys of society that imply he is repressing everything about him he feels is human. Patrick wants to disconnect from a world that seemingly wants nothing to do with him. The end implication of this film, the question of what actually happened, is then answered two-fold. Firstly, the lawyers, the place he works for and people selling Paul Allen’s house are all corrupt – evil like him. This is because they facilitate his murders by covering it up. This is one (incomplete) explanation of how he got away with everything. Whilst this could be true to a certain extent, there is a much greater truth to American Psycho. Patrick imagines everything evil and fucked up he does. None of it actually happened. This is supported by this:
This is the notebook Patrick scribbles on that he keeps in his desk – it’s where he vents all his twisted emotions. And the only one capable of picking up on this is the only person who shows the slightest of interest toward him, who he shows a smidgen of humanity toward…
… and that’s Jean. This means that the lasting commentary of the film on solipsism, nihilism, pragmatism and so on is that Patrick doesn’t know how to take any of these ideas to heart – and, yeah, he’s got a heart. Patrick is a slave to his emotions and the vacuous environment he puts himself in. This all means that everything I’ve said so far about him being a serial killer and fucked up is a bit of a lie. Patrick is supposedly a bit like you and me. He needs catharsis and gets it second hand through imagining he kills people, fucks prostitutes, eats brains, blows up cop cars – yet still gets away with it. In the end, he can’t keep the lie up, not to himself, and cracks. But, what he needs is numbness. This is why he doesn’t kill Jean, Kimball or Luis. They get into his head, convince him that both himself and them are somewhat the same. They imply to him the horrifying idea that he and they could be human. They do this by talking back to him about music, actually listening, understanding he has a girlfriend, or even finding him attractive. What Patrick wants is none of this. He wishes he were a sociopath and didn’t have to deal with emotions – as we all kind of wish sometimes (not to deal with feelings).
This is why I feel Patrick Bateman is a character many can empathise with. In the end, he’s a little deranged, but not as fucked up as he wants to be. It’s recognising this and watching the people around Patrick that we can recognise them as being quite a bit more sociopathic than himself. They are either entirely self-absorbed, unthinkably arrogant, ego-maniacal or explosively violent. Patrick never shows himself to be any of these things to the same extent we see in them. Maybe this turns the philosophical question of the film into something like: what are you, if you are the only sane person in a world of maniacs? I think the answer is nothing other than a Patrick Bateman – you are, in your own special way, insane. To refer back to the Psycho post, the romantic aspect of Bateman’s character here comes with his inability to connect with people, with Jean maybe. It’s in abject isolation that Patrick becomes a closeted romantic, by below the surface wanting to connect with someone, but simply being too scared to, he appeals to imagination, idealisation and individuality (romanticism) but ends up repressing it. He is, in the end, a romantic serial killer at heart – if that makes any sense at all.
To come back to question of the audience that is posed by these kinds of films (fucked up horrors) it’s best to turn to Patrick. What’s fundamentally wrong with Pat is that he’s a slave to himself and to emotions. Are we like him by watching his story so we can experience second hand (third hand) violence? Are we slaves to emotions, to chemical rushes? Is this right? What makes sense to me is that, no, it’s wrong to adhere to emotions to a certain extent. As long as we don’t get too immersed in emotions and end up realising negative, maybe even fucked up and violent, thoughts or feelings, we’re good. I say this because emotions are good and bad, they hurt us and they make us feel great. However, whilst living in a society presented by another great Christian Bale film…
… would allow us to be numb, to get on with life, the highs of emotions make the lows bearable. This is what Patrick realises by the end of the film. He laughs at the notion that some people are just cool, that they can be completely empty beyond their surface. He figures out that ‘he’s just a happy guy’ having stumbled upon the truth of his soft-mania. But, whilst Patrick figures out that he is not a murderer, that he does want to feel, he is still stagnated. It’s best to let him say it:
There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have cause and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. And even after admitting this, there is no catharsis, my punishment continues to allude me, and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. No new knowledge can be extracted from my telling, this confession has meant nothing.
The first two lines are the recognition that he’s not like other sociopaths, he’s not like other viscous and evil people. He knows he’s imagined all he’s done and now has surpassed that stage of his life. His pain being sharp and constant is the acceptance that he cannot be numb anymore. Him wishing this on you is then not the end of the world. Now, the catharsis he cannot achieve by telling this story, by confessing to himself and us alike, is some kind of alleviation from his body, from his emotions. Patrick doesn’t know why he feels, he never will – that’s life. His confession then meaning nothing becomes a question to you. Does this give him free range to now become an actual serial killer, to realise his imaginings? Is that what he surpassed? Or, does him recognising he’s a bit fucked up allow him to get on with life? This is probably the most important question you can ever ask yourself in life. The most important questions are not why are we here, what’s the purpose, is there a God and so on. The most important question is: what are you going to do about it? What are you going to about there possibly not being a God, about there possibly being a God? What are you going to do about your inability to find yourself? Will you give up, break down, or carry on?
Remember, these questions aren’t just to Patrick, but to us watching him, wondering why on Earth we support imaginary murder and mutilation, why it feels good to us. So, in the end, if there is some seed, some smidgen of evil in us all, are we supposed to sympathise with it, or cut it out? Is the plight of evil worth paying attention to?
Psycho – Marriage And How Not To Do It: Him And Her In Two Parts
The End Of The Tour – Plagiarised Selves
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