When Mary Harron’s American Psycho hit theaters twenty years ago, it sent shockwaves through mainstream cinema. It was daring, intelligent, and bolstered by a chillingly charismatic leading performance from Christian Bale as the malevolent Patrick Bateman. But like many films of its ilk, this satirical piece with a fairly clear political message is puzzlingly taken at face value by many audiences, Patrick Bateman doesn’t feel like a character that viewers should empathize with or want to emulate. Yet as we also see in films like Fight Club and (to a lesser extent) Joker, it feels as though many viewers stubbornly refuse to buy into the filmmakers’ condemnation of these toxic, sociopathic characters. Audiences, especially men, identify with them and glorify their actions.
But should a film be responsible for its audience’s reaction to it? Both the film and the wildly controversial 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis that it’s based on have no intentions of portraying Patrick Bateman as the hero — far from it. American Psycho serves as an indictment of capitalism and unrestrained consumerism, as well as a condemnation of the type of masculinity that society encourages men to emulate. Ellis wrote of his inspiration for the character years later: “The rage I felt over what was being extolled as success, what was expected from me and all male members of Gen X — millions of dollars and six-pack abs — I poured into the fictional creation of Patrick Bateman.”
Patrick Bateman is a man who seems to have it all. He’s handsome, well-spoken, physically fit. He has a great job with an income that allows him a lavish lifestyle. His apartment is the embodiment of modernist style, he dines out at all the best restaurants, and he moves in the highest of social circles. But everything that makes up who he is as a person only exists on the surface; there’s nothing underneath, besides a sense of darkness and alienation that leads him to act out on his otherwise sublimated homicidal tendencies.
This soulless monster is as pure a rejection of the qualities society celebrates in masculinity as you’re likely to find. Bateman is what happens when you take the vain, egotistic, status-obsessed man who views women as a mere commodity, and follow his characterization to its logical conclusion. American Psycho is practically screaming at us to reevaluate the traits we celebrate in masculinity. Yet somehow, Patrick Bateman has become an object of begrudging (or even unreserved) admiration among some audiences. These conflicting interpretations highlight a complicated and ultimately harmful trend where men who feel marginalized and isolated over-relate to vicious, misogynistic figures in film, and are either willing to overlook their violent treatment of women or are actually drawn in by it.
There are Patrick Bateman action figures, a domain traditionally reserved for beloved characters in popular culture. A single Google search reveals hundreds of articles providing advice on how to dress like Patrick Bateman, breaking down his style, workout routine, and skincare regimen. There’s even a small but vocal community of men’s right activists that regard him as a role model, worryingly using his general approach to relationships as a set of guidelines for their own lives. Ironically, all the things about Patrick Bateman that demonstrate how empty and shallow his life is, how much he lacks any interior sense of self, have been seized by fans as the most worthy of imitation. As much as any of the characters in the film, they focus in on the undeniably appealing surface elements of Bateman — the confidence, the wealth, the sex, the power — and either ignore or fail to register the fact that these qualities are intentionally used to mask what is essentially a non-person.
There are plenty of antiheroes in cinema who, despite their flaws or questionable choices, audiences forge an emotional connection with; that’s hardly a new phenomenon. But in most cases, this attachment is the result of some deeper quality that the character possesses, a hidden vulnerability or a moral code that may not line up with societal norms but exists nonetheless. Patrick Bateman is unique in that he lacks even that sense of interiority. He is at once a horrifying caricature of the traits men are taught to value, and a popular icon who is celebrated for his possession of those very qualities. And so American Psycho, a film that should be recognized for its witty and stylish satire of extreme consumer culture and masculine ideals, has a very different legacy — one that births a popular hero it actively despises.