American Psycho

American Psycho (2000)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Josh Lucas, Reese Witherspoon
Extras: Christian Bale Interview, Featurette, Talent Bios, Production Notes, Theatrical Trailer

After recently viewing "The Cider House Rules", I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to movie adaptations of novels. As long as the novel isn’t some sort of way-out science fiction, it’s generally pretty easy to transplant the story from a novel to the screen. But, it’s a greater challenge to translate the tone of a book to film. Most novels work, not only because of the story, but because of the depth that they can achieve that a ninety-minute film cannot. "American Psycho", based on the controversial novel by Brett Easton Ellis, is a film that is able to be faithful to the novel’s story, while retaining some of it’s tone as well. Universal Home Video has brought "American Psycho" to DVD in both a rated and an unrated edition (both containing the same extra features), and gives us a glimpse into the mind of a killer.

"American Psycho" tells the story of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale). Patrick is a 27-year old Harvard graduate who works on Wall Street. He’s young, handsome, rich, and very crazy. When Patrick isn’t at work, he’s spending time with his fiancee Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), or his mistress Courtney (Samantha Mathis), or with his high-powered friends. But, Patrick also likes to commit murder. "American Psycho" is set in 1987, and as the film opens, we see Patrick as just another greedy yuppie. But, after we witness him performing his first killing, we definitely sense that something is wrong with Patrick.

Patrick is a sociopath (not a true psychopath, as the title would imply), in that he has no true emotions, but puts on a performance to fit the social situation in which he finds himself. Patrick is very good at impressing the ladies or making expensive deals at work, but he doesn’t feel connected to other people. Patrick likes to manipulate people, but most of all he likes to inflict pain on others. Things come to a head when Patrick becomes jealous of a co-worker, Paul Allen (Jared Leto). (It’s the fact that Allen has nicer business cards that sends Patrick over the edge.) Patrick plots Allen’s murder and this opens the floodgates on his madness. Suddenly, Patrick can’t stop killing people. Strangely, Patrick confesses his crimes to many of his colleagues, but they are too wrapped up in their own lives to put any credence to Patrick’s words. Even a private detective (Willem Dafoe) has difficulty seeing past Patrick’s perfect veneer to the monster that lies beneath. As the film progresses, Patrick becomes more and more out of control, as he finds himself teetering on the brink of total madness.

Having read the novel, I must review "American Psycho" as it compares to the book. Co-writers Mary Harron, who also directed the film, and Guinevere Turner (who’s also an actress, having appeared in films such as "Chasing Amy) have done a great job in translating the basic premise and themes of the book to the movie. The notion of 80’s greed and self-absorption is perfectly portrayed in the film. The best scenes in the film are those in which Patrick confesses his crimes to someone and they either don’t listen or assume that he said something else, such as when "executions and murders" is heard as "acquisitions and mergers." Also, there’s a nice motif concerning the fact that all of these Wall Street guys look alike and Patrick is always being mistaken for someone else, thus adding to his anonymity. At the same time, the writers made a wise choice by keeping in Patrick’s obsession with music, demonstrating that he cares more about pop music than the lives of those around him.

Christian Bale does a good job of showing the dichotomy of Patrick’s character. He shows how Bateman can turn on the charm and jump into any conversation. But, he also does a good job of portraying Patrick’s madness, both when he’s in control of it and when he falls apart. Although I didn’t picture someone like Bale while reading the novel and he does get a bit hammy at times, overall, his performance is impressive.

Having said all of that, the film does diverge from the novel in some very important ways. First of all, the novel is incredibly graphic in its depictions of the murders. Most of the bad reputation that the book has garnered comes from the gratuitous violence, which it describes. Harron decided to go for a much subtler approach and has toned down the violence in the film to practically nothing. In my opinion, this was a mistake. In the book (as in the film), Patrick is presented as someone who is obsessed with his appearance and always wants to look very nice and neat. The book portrays the depths of his madness by showing just how visceral and dirty he’s willing to get when he commits the murders. In the film, we know that he’s a murderer, but we don’t get the glimpses of hell that are demonstrated in the book. Also, Patrick is often portrayed as a buffoon in the film. The fact that he’s driven to murder by a business card makes sense in the context of the book, where we are more privy to Patrick’s obsession with brand-names and appearances, but here, it just seems to be another one of his eccentricities. What we are left with is a film that can stand alone, but pales in comparison to the source novel.

It’s obvious that Universal Home Video didn’t have a "psycho" in charge of the "American Psycho" DVD. The film is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. As the film was in theatres only four and a half months ago, it’s obvious that a brand new print was used to make the digital transfer. There are no obvious defects in the source print. The <$PS,letterboxed> framing of the image appears to be correct, as there is no warping at the edges of the frame or obvious loss of visual information. The visual image is very crisp and clear, showing a great deal of definition, while presenting no saturation or <$pixelation,pixelation>. The colors are very true, ranging from Patrick’s Kubrick-esque white apartment, to the red blood of his victims. Nighttime scenes look very good, without appearing too dark or over-lit. "American Psycho" is a <$RSDL,dual-layer> DVD and shows no problems related to compression.

The audio on "American Psycho" is a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> presentation. This mix is very nice, offering a well-balanced sound, with no sudden fluctuations in volume. 80s dance music is used throughout the film, and the throbbing bass coming through the subwoofer adds a nice ambience to the film. The dialogue is always clear and free of distortion and there is no audible hiss on the track. The soundtrack makes good use of the surround sound speakers, especially during nightclub scenes or when Patrick is out on the street.

The DVD contains several interesting extra features. There is a five-minute "Making Of" featurette. This featurette was a welcome surprise because it doesn’t contain any clips from the movie! It is made up entirely of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the actors and director Mary Harron. Though this featurette is short, it is packed full of information as we hear the filmmakers talk about what went in to making "American Psycho." There is also a separate five-minute interview with star Christian Bale, where he talks about why he took the part, how he feels about the novel, and what it was like to work with Harron. Unfortunately, none of these special features contain any comments from author Bret Easton Ellis. I would like to get his take on the film.

The DVD also contains the original red-band trailer for the film, which is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. There are a brief set of production notes containing some quotes from Harron that weren’t found in the featurette, alng with extensive talent bios, that give a good overview of the careers of the people involved in making "American Psycho."

"American Psycho" is a good example of what can go right and what can go wrong when adapting a novel to film. The movie retains the book’s main story and some of its theme, but misses the boat when it comes to the true nature of Patrick Bateman’s character. Still, the film is very well made and definitely works as an indictment of the Reagan era. Universal Home Video has brought "American Psycho" to DVD in a high-style that would make Bateman proud, with a beautiful transfer and some fine extras. The odds of you not finding something in "American Psycho" to like are "less than zero."